Boston drops plan to change school hours
The Boston school system, bowing to widespread opposition from parents and a growing number of city councilors, is abandoning its plan to change the opening and closing bells for schools across the city next fall, officials announced Friday.
In making the announcement on the first day of school vacation, Superintendent Tommy Chang said he would work collaboratively with school communities to develop new bell schedules “for future years.”
The reversal occurred just two weeks after it was announced.
“Over the past few weeks, we have heard from families, staff, and stakeholders that there are concerns with the implementation of the new start and end times policy,” Chang wrote in a letter e-mailed to families. “After reflecting on this feedback, we understand that while the new schedule would achieve our goal of supporting academic success for all ages, the shifts to many school start times caused a more significant disruption to family schedules than we intended.”
The letter represented a major retreat for Chang, who was insistent on implementing changes next fall. He and other school officials wanted city high schools to start later in the morning — giving teenagers a better chance to get a full night’s sleep — but their plan also required many younger students to start school significantly earlier, angering many parents.
The episode was among the biggest School Department controversies since Chang became superintendent in 2015.
Just a week ago, in a slight concession to parents, Chang said he would rethink his plan, but would release revisions by mid-January for enactment in September.
Mayor Martin J. Walsh also did not appear willing to back down, saying last week that the city would not “crumble” in its intention to change school start times.
But on Friday, Walsh said he supported Chang’s decision to reverse course.
“It’s clear that there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved before new start times are put in place,” Walsh said in a statement. “We continue to believe that this policy will better position students of all ages for academic success and we should not lose sight of this shared goal.”
The announcement was celebrated by families across the city who had been pushing for a one-year moratorium on changing school hours, which could have caused dozens of schools in the lower grades to start as early as 7:15 a.m. A protest planned for City Hall Plaza Friday afternoon instead turned into an impromptu victory party.
“I’m thrilled that we were listened to,” said Sarena Nichol, who has two children in elementary school. “That is a good feeling.”
Nine-year-old Beatrice Graf, a third-grader at Mission Hill K-8 School in Jamaica Plain, celebrated with a cartwheel.
The controversy over the bell times erupted after the School Committee on Dec. 6 approved a policy that aimed to have high schools start after 8 a.m. and more elementary and K-8 schools get out before 4 p.m.
Many parents, who largely support the philosophy behind the policy, ridiculed the implementation plan as ill-conceived, while accusing school officials of developing the proposal in secret. School officials did not reveal the new bell times for individual schools until a day after the School Committee vote, announcing they would change start times at 84 percent of the city’s 125 schools.
Under the plan, most high schools would have started at 8 a.m. or later. But more than three dozen elementary and K-8 schools would have started at 7:30 a.m. or earlier, representing a shift of more than two hours for many families, which could have doubled day care costs with dismissals as early as 1:15 p.m. while chipping away at family time.
The school system developed the plan with a team of MIT researchers who created an algorithm that could change school start times and bus routes simultaneously.
News of the plan immediately galvanized parents into action. A frustrated Jane Miller, who has three children at the Manning Elementary School in Jamaica Plain, where the opening bell would have shifted from 9:30 to 7:15, launched an online petition a few hours after the proposal was announced to halt the changes.
The online petition protesting the policy eventually collected 8,500 signatures, while helping to give rise to a massive parent movement unlike any seen in Boston in recent years. On a Sunday night, just three days after the plan was announced, parents packed the back room at Doyle’s Cafe, a Jamaica Plain bar, to plot strategy.
From there, they turned out by the hundreds to a School Committee meeting and nearly a dozen community meetings hastily arranged by school officials in response to the uproar.
The debate became intensely personal at times. Many parents were appalled the school system sprung the changes on them during the frenzy of a holiday season and less than a month before school registration was to begin, giving them little time to react.
Some parents heaped blame on Walsh. Last Sunday, a group of protesters rankled the mayor during a tree-lighting ceremony in West Roxbury. They were planning a larger protest at his inauguration on New Year’s Day.
Miller said parents, who have organized themselves into a group called Start Smart BPS, are looking forward to working with the school system on a new proposal and said she hopes that the school system works with each school individually on a solution.
“I think everyone knows we won’t get exactly what we want,” she said. “We all need to be willing to make concessions along the way.”
City Councilor Annissa Essaibi George, a former teacher with children in the system, said Chang had little choice but to halt the plan.
“I am so disappointed that it got this far,” she said. “It created more distrust between families, the city and school district. . . . And unfortunately in this mess that was created, we also failed to fix what was broken” with school start times.
Essaibi George was among a vocal group of city councilors who believed the 7:15 start times were too early, although they supported later start times for high schools. Some were threatening to vote against the school budget if the school system enacted the plan.
City Council President Michelle Wu expressed relief Friday that the school system was backing down.
“Having a longer conversation is the right move,” she said.
City Councilor Matt O’Malley, said he had never seen parents mobilize in such high numbers across the city in his seven years in office.
“I’m really delighted that BPS has decided to abandon this ill-conceived plan,” he said.
Michael O’Neill, Boston School Committee chairman, said his board supports the delay in implementation.
“This is the prerogative of the superintendent, and we welcome his reasoned approach on this matter,” he said in a statement.
Back at City Hall Plaza, Dorothy Fennell, who has a daughter in pre-kindergarten, said she was happy the announcement came before Christmas so families could enjoy the holidays. “It’s a great way to go into the weekend,” she said. “Since we heard the news, we’ve spent all our time focused on this.”