AMID THE TREMENDOUS controversy caused by the proposed new Boston Public Schools start times, it has been easy to lose sight of the goal that prompted the policy change in the first place. Rearranging bell times is meant to allow more secondary school students to start their day later. As kids grow into adolescence, their sleep patterns change. They naturally go to bed later at night and wake up later in the morning. Pushing back school times improves the learning environment, which is why school districts across the nation are adjusting their schedules.
Just about every stakeholder in the school system agrees, in concept, with the idea of later start times for high schoolers. It’s the logistics that are proving so controversial. Enough high school students use school-provided transportation that rescheduling their buses creates a ripple effect that ends up affecting bell times throughout the system. To free up those buses, some elementary schools will have to start earlier — in some instances by two hours. Such a change threatens to upend many family schedules. The parental uproar has been so persistent that school officials have pressed pause on the policy — for now.
But the potential gains are too important to give up. The proposed schedules would allow more than 90 percent of secondary school students to start classes at or after 8 a.m.
One reason the proposed changes have sparked so much controversy is that the school system is attempting to spread the pain in a way that takes into account existing racial inequities in school scheduling. According to a BPS survey, parents ranked start times between 8 and 8:30 a.m. as most desirable. Under the current system, white elementary school children disproportionately avoid undesirable schedules. Only 10 percent start school before 8 a.m., compared with 31 percent and 27 percent of blacks and Latino elementary school students, respectively.
The new schedule reduces those stark disparities, meaning white families are hit hardest. More elementary school children of all races will start class earlier, but the percentage of white children with pre-8 a.m. start times would increase almost fivefold, compared to smaller increases in the percentage of black and Latino kids. BPS could hardly have made such a major change without considering its racial impact.
A legitimate question, raised by City Councilor at Large Michelle Wu and others, is whether the schedule changes really needed to be so major in the first place — whether this much disruption is needed to achieve the city’s goals. In a series of tweets, Wu asked the city to project in greater detail how alternative scenarios would play out, including their cost: “How much extra in transportation costs if each school started at the time that its families rated as ideal?” BPS should openly evaluate other possible scenarios. The cost savings from the recent plan would be nice — but they’re not essential. If there’s another scenario that achieves the educational and equity goals of the BPS proposal, without as much overall disruption to families, BPS should certainly consider it, even if the savings are less.
But while such tweaks to the plan might be workable, the proposal deserves to go forward in some form. The educational gains for Boston’s high school students are too real to pass up. And the racial disparities in the current school schedules are too blatant to ignore.