Parents across Boston are understandably rattled by the Boston Public Schools’ new plan to change start times in a majority of schools in the district. Some even started a Change.org petition asking the city to freeze the plan, which is set to take effect in 105 of the city’s 125 schools next fall.
While disruption in family schedules is difficult, the rearranged school times promise educational benefits for children and financial savings for the district. The school department could have handled the roll-out better, but now officials deserve the chance to make the new schedules work.
The new start times have been 18 months in the making, and reflect an evolving understanding that traditional early start times at high schools can be harmful. Teenagers naturally fall asleep later than younger kids, but still need between 8 and 9 hours of daily sleep. Forcing them to start school in what feels to them like the wee hours of the morning hurts academic performance. When Minneapolis high schools moved from a 7:15 a.m. start time to 8:40 a.m., teen student absenteeism went down and test scores improved. Student-involved car crashes dropped 65 percent. Cities and towns across the Commonwealth are moving high school start times back. Just this year, three school districts — Ashland, Concord-Carlisle, and Monomoy, on the Cape — pushed the first bell. In Boston, the proposal will increase the percentage of students in grades 7 through 12 who begin classes after 8 a.m. from 27 to over 94 percent.
The second goal of the new schedules is to reduce the number of younger children coming home after sunset. Dozens of elementary and K-8 schools have dismissal times at or after 4 p.m., which puts buses on the road in the middle of afternoon traffic and forces young kids to walk home in the dark during the winter. The new policy reduces from 33 percent to 15 percent the number of students dismissed after 4 p.m.
Happily, the new schedules also save money. Boston holds the dubious distinction of spending more on transportation than any other large urban district in the United States. The city spends about $2,000 per student, while the average cost in a large school district is $350 per kid. The adjustment in school times will allow the district to simultaneously optimize bus routes and reduce that cost significantly. School officials said they don’t have an estimate of savings, but every dollar shaved off transportation can go for the district’s core needs.
Parents worried about the new start times have pointed out that Boston high schoolers use public transportation, so any change to secondary-school schedules shouldn’t impact the start times of elementary-school kids who do use the buses. But in fact, about 25 percent of secondary-school students receive some sort of BPS-sponsored transportation, including buses for students with special needs and shuttle buses that bring students to MBTA stations. For the city’s bus fleet to meet those needs at later times, elementary school schedules have to change too.
Obviously, the shift will produce hardships. But the promise of meaningful academic and public safety improvements makes the new schedules well worth the hassle.