Status quo

Call for later high school start times falls flat in Denver Public Schools

Last fall, a top Denver Public Schools administrator sent an email to 10 secondary principals asking that high schools and sixth-12th grade campuses push their start times later this year—to 8 a.m.

It would have meant changes at many of the city’s secondary schools, most of which start between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m.

But most students and parents shouldn’t expect to see any schedule shifts this fall. Only one of the schools that received the email—Denver Center for International Studies-Baker—changed its start time, moving from 7:25 to 7:55 a.m.

A handful of Denver high schools, including the new Northfield High, Manual High and DSST charter high schools, also have start times of 8 a.m. or later this year, but such schedules were either already in place or planned prior to the email request.

While district administrators say there was never any mandate to push back start times at other schools, the email appears to be more than a casual suggestion.

Fred McDowell, the district’s former instructional superintendent for high schools, wrote in the email, “The data indicates a direct correlation to student levels of alertness and engagement. Therefore we are asking all high schools and 6-12 campuses to institute a start time of 8am beginning in the 2015-16 school year.”

Towards the end of the email, he wrote, “There will be ongoing discussion in order to work out the logistics and support needed to operationalize this across DPS (Food Services, Transportation, Athletics, After school Activities, and etc).”

The email went to principals at most of the district’s traditional high schools on Nov. 14. (See the full email at the end of this story.)

Nine months later, it appears miscommunication between top administrators and logistical obstacles stymied the late start proposal. McDowell resigned at the end of the school year and took a job in the School District of Philadelphia. He could not be reached for comment.

Greta Martinez, assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness and McDowell’s supervisor, said the email miscommunicated the district’s intention, which was to launch conversations about later start times, not change to them this year.

Asked why McDowell sent the message, she said, “Fred’s not here so I can’t ask him. It’s all in interpretation. I can’t guess what he was intending with his message.”

Why are later start times better for teens?
  • Sleep-wake cycles shift during puberty, making it hard for kids to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school.
  • Experts say it’s normal for teens to stay awake till 11 p.m.
  • It’s recommended that teens get 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night.
  • Research shows that students with early bell times get less sleep than they should, which is tied to lower achievement and higher rates of obesity, depression and car accidents.

Suzanne Morris-Sherer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, said she believes later start times are a great idea but aren’t currently feasible because of transportation constraints and sports schedules.

When she received McDowell’s email last fall, she forwarded it to her staff and asked for feedback to provide to central administrators. About a half-dozen staff members responded, most concerned about the issues she cited.

Morris-Sherer said she didn’t recall any follow-up from central administrators afterwards.

The debate about later start times in DPS and elsewhere is nothing new. But with recent calls for change from national health experts and some of DPS’s own leaders, the inertia is striking. It’s possible these kind of proposals may hold even less sway moving forward given the district’s embrace of decentralized decision-making, which gives principals’ significant autonomy for making building-level decisions.

Scott Mendelsberg, McDowell’s replacement, addressed the issue of decentralization, saying, “It wasn’t really about, ‘We don’t have to do what they’re asking.’ I think principals thought it would be an okay idea, but really did worry about the logistics of this.”

“It’s a little surprising that more didn’t go to this model, but I don’t think it’s a dead issue.”

Martinez agreed, saying there will be further conversations about moving start times with even more schools involved than the 10 targeted by McDowell’s email.

“I think we just needed a little better messaging about what this means and what this looks like,” said Mendelsberg.

The early side of late

While the 8 a.m start time McDowell requested last fall would have moved district high schools in the right direction according to research, it wouldn’t have gone as far as experts recommend.

A policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics last fall recommended start times of 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schools. And in 2002, the Colorado PTA passed a resolution urging state and federal legislation for 9 a.m. secondary start times.

Cindy Daisley, the group’s president and the mother of two North High School graduates, said even 13 years later, it’s still a big issue.

“I would love to see something happen districtwide, even statewide, because I think it’s important for our teenagers to perform better,” she said.

When her twin boys were in high school, she said, “getting them out of bed in the morning was so painful for all of us because they just required that much sleep.”

There’s science to back up her experience. It indicates that teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night and are hardwired to favor later bedtimes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on start times noted that teens who get enough sleep are at reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in car accidents, and have better grades and higher standardized test scores.

Generally speaking, no one disputes the research on teen sleep habits and later school start times. The sticking point is putting it into practice.

Navigating logistics

So what makes it so hard to change high school start and end times?

One of the biggest issues is the transportation jigsaw puzzle. Because middle and elementary school bus routes usually follow early-morning and early-afternoon high school routes, changes to the high school schedule can impact schools all down the line.

Even in DPS, where few high schoolers use district buses, transportation still matters. In part, it’s because special education students do rely on yellow buses to get to high school, so moving their start times could mean fewer district buses available to transport younger children.

Morris-Sherer said even with the current 2:50 p.m. dismissal at Thomas Jefferson, her special education students often have to leave their last class early to make it to the school bus in time. She worried that with a later dismissal time, they’d miss even more of their last class.

“It would just impact my instructional day,” she said.

Later start and end times could also cause transportation woes for general education students. For example, city buses currently make stops on Thomas Jefferson’s campus twice after school lets out. If the dismissal time were delayed, Morris-Sherrer said those students could miss the two on-campus buses and be forced to walk across the bridge over Interstate 25 for a later and more inconvenient off-campus pick-up.

Scott Mendelsberg said such issues, which might involve negotiating different on-campus pick-up times with the city bus system, must be addressed at the district level, not left up to schools to handle.

“There are solutions to…some of these concerns,” he said.

The other major challenge in changing start and end times revolves around after-school obligations including school sports, after-school jobs or family responsibilities like caring for younger siblings.

At the 2,500-student East High School, student athletes sometimes miss half of their last class to get to games on time even with the current 7:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. schedule. Principal Andy Mendelsberg, who is Scott Mendelsberg’s brother, said a later dismissal would mean an even bigger dent in class time.

At Northfield High, where the school day runs from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Principal Avi Tropper said most games will be scheduled for 6 p.m. on weeknights or on Saturdays. For sports like cross-country, in which multi-school meets are often scheduled around 2 p.m., students may have to leave early, he said.

Andy Mendelsberg said with East fielding four teams in almost every sport and limited daylight in late fall, it would be impossible to eliminate weekday afternoon games.

“There’s no way for us to work around that…We can’t play everybody on Friday and Saturday and get through the season.”

The schools that make it work

While late high school start times are hardly the norm in Denver or Colorado as a whole, they do have a small presence.

Manual’s 8:10 a.m. start time has been in place for years, said secretary Carol Grant, who’s worked at three high schools during her 20-year career in DPS.

She believes the later start makes it easier for students to get to school on time and that they’re more awake once there.

When she worked at West High School, she said, “I’d write a thousand passes in the morning” for the long line of kids arriving late.

But Thomas Jefferson Principal Morris-Sherer said the school’s 7:30 a.m. start time is not a problem for most kids.

“I don’t have kids falling asleep habitually in class,” she said. “It is what it is. You just adjust your life.”

Andy Mendelsberg said East allowed students to opt for an 8:20 a.m. start several years ago as part of an experiment that added a ninth period to the school day. Only 31 students took advantage of the option.

At the four high school locations of the Denver School for Science and Technology, or DSST, start times range from 7:55 a.m to 8:15 a.m.

The later-than-average start times were intentional, said Andrew Mendrop, manager of communications and development for the charter school network.

The physiology of teenagers was a key consideration, but there were competing priorities, he said. Network leaders didn’t want to push start times back so much that it would inconvenience parents dropping their children off before work or students with after-school activities or jobs.

Last year, the Harrison School District near Colorado Springs pushed back start times at all 20 of its schools after a committee studied the issue for two years. High schools now start at 7:45 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m, and elementary and middle schools now start at 8:35 a.m. instead of 8:10 a.m. (On Mondays only, middle schools start at 10:05 a.m. and high schools start at 9:15 a.m.)

Northfield has the latest start time among comprehensive high schools in Denver, but at least one Colorado district has even later starts.

Middle-schoolers in the Cortez-Montezuma district start their day at 8:50 a.m. and high-schoolers at 9 a.m.

Some Denver students may dream about reporting to school so late, but for now they’ll have to keep setting their alarms.

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Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.