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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a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.