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Indianapolis Public Schools considers letting high schoolers sleep in

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tired Indianapolis teens may soon be able to sleep in.

With research increasingly pointing to health and academic benefits for teens who are able to sleep later, some Indianapolis Public Schools board members are calling on the district to explore the possibility of starting high school later in the morning.

“Every bit of research shows that secondary school students should start school later,” said board member Kelly Bentley. “If we are really about doing what’s right for kids … I think we ought to really consider doing it.”

The issue surfaced at a school board meeting last week during a presentation by IPS operations officer David Rosenberg on a proposal to put the district on a new, standardized bus schedule.

Rosenberg said the new bus schedule would reduce transportation costs by ensuring that all buses have time to do multiple routes, first taking some kids to high school, then taking others to elementary schools.

The proposal called for high school classes to begin at 7:20 a.m. and elementary classes to start between 8:15 a.m. and 9:05 a.m.

Currently, bell schedules in IPS schools vary widely, but most high schools start at 7:30 a.m. and most elementary schools start after 9 am. (One notable exception is Shortridge High School, which offers an international baccalaureate magnet program and starts at 9:10 a.m.)

Rosenberg told the board that standardized, tiered start and release times could save $7 million a year by reducing the number of buses and drivers the district would need.

Several board members suggested that if the district is planning to change school start times, it should consider flipping the schedule, so that elementary school students start earlier and high schoolers have a later start time.

Many districts across the country have looked at school start times as studies show benefits ranging from lower dropout rates to fewer car accidents among high school students when their school day starts later.

University of Minnesota researcher Kyla Wahlstrom, who has been studying school start time policies for two decades, said nearly all the research points to academic and health benefits from starting high school later.

Wahlstrom said that teens who get less than 8 hours of sleep are more likely to use drugs, cigarettes and alcohol. They are also more likely to suffer from depression. Biology leads teens to naturally fall asleep and wake up later, so starting school later means students typically get more sleep.

In a federally funded investigation into the effects of later start times in eight districts that made the switch, Wahlstrom found that when school started later, students did better on several measures, including mental health, attendance and, at some schools, scores on standardized tests.

During the discussion before the board last week, board member Diane Arnold added that research also suggests that it is better for young children to start school earlier in the day.

“We’ve talked about this for many, many years,” she said. “(This should) be part of the conversation.”

But there are practical challenges that often stymie districts interested in making the shift.

One problem is that many teenagers have work, sports or extracurricular activities after school that would be made more difficult by a later school day. Another concern is that earlier start times for elementary schools can put pressure on families to find additional childcare in the afternoon.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the central office staff had discussed the proposal, but he remains skeptical about whether IPS should push the start of the high school day later in part because of practical concerns over issues such as whether it’s safe for elementary students to wait for the bus in the morning when it is still dark.

“There are some benefits, and there are some items to consider on both sides, in terms of how we start school,” Ferebee said.

Wahlstrom said districts often see resistance when they propose moving start times because of logistical challenges. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged later start times for middle and high schools last year, and districts are increasingly changing their policies.

“There’s no question that it’s a lot of work,” Wahlstrom said. “(But) parents are the ones with the strong initiative to say, ‘my child is desperately in need of more sleep.’ ”

schools' choice

Betsy DeVos’s comments on discrimination drew headlines, but her stance isn’t unique among private school choice backers

PHOTO: Matt Barnum
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Providence Cristo Rey in Indianapolis.

Betsy DeVos drew incredulous reactions this week when she said she would let states decide on the rules for voucher programs vying for federal money — including whether schools that discriminate against LGBT students could participate.

But the education secretary’s position isn’t out of the mainstream among voucher supporters, or out of step with how private school choice programs work across the country.

For instance, Robert Enlow of the Indianapolis-based EdChoice, a group that advocates for vouchers, emphasized that his group does not support discrimination but declined to take a position on whether private schools that receive public funds should be prohibited from discriminating based on sexual orientation.

“As an organization we are working [toward] our position” on that issue, he told Chalkbeat, the day before DeVos’s comments to Congress. “It is something we are concerned about and that we need to confront head on, but we don’t have a position yet.”

That stance is also reflected in model private school choice legislation from the American Federation for Children, the advocacy group that DeVos used to lead. It says only that schools should comply with federal discrimination law, and does not include rules regarding sexual orientation. A spokesperson for the group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Voucher programs give families public funds to pay private school tuition. The vast majority of private schools in the country are religious; in Indiana there are just seven non-religious private schools participating in the state’s voucher program, compared to nearly 300 Christian schools.

Federal law bans discrimination based on “race, color, or creed” in private schools that receive tax exemptions but is silent on the issue of sexual orientation. According to a 2016 study, no school voucher program in the country includes such protections, meaning that students or families who elect to participate may have no legal recourse if they face discrimination based on sexual orientation.

And a number of schools that are part of publicly funded private school choice programs in Indiana, North Carolina, and Georgia — initiatives backed by national school choice groups — include explicitly anti-gay language.

Blackhawk Christian School in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says in its handbook that it may refuse admission or expel a student for “practicing homosexual lifestyle or alternative gender identity, promoting such practices, or otherwise having the inability to support the moral principles of the school.”

Another Indiana school highlights differences between public schools and private Christian schools on its website, including that while teachers in public schools “may be straight or gay,” those in private schools are “committed believers seeking to model Christ before their students.” Both schools participate in Indiana’s school voucher program.

Choice programs differ. Some, like Washington, D.C.’s federally backed initiative, prohibit discrimination based on religion or gender, while other don’t. Attempts to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in D.C.’s program have been voted down by Republicans in Congress.

Public schools are not free from discrimination, according to survey data compiled by GLSEN, a group that pushes for fair treatment of LGBT students in school. According to the survey, LGBT students reported experiencing more discrimination in private religious schools as compared to public schools — but were less likely to experience verbal or physical harassment in private schools.

Supporters of school choice worry that banning discrimination would stop some private schools from participating in voucher programs and prevent them from practicing their religion.

“If you support private school choice, then you have to be comfortable with allowing private schools to remain private,” Michael Petrilli of the conservative Fordham Institute said earlier this year. “One part of that is allowing them to be religious, to have a set of values they believe in, and to have an admissions process to make sure kids are a good fit for their program.”

Enlow pointed to research compiled by EdChoice that private schools instill a greater sense of tolerance and civic virtue than public schools.

Enlow suggested that questions of discrimination can be addressed locally. “We believe that families and schools working together can solve this,” he said.

future funding

Trump’s education budget could be bad news for New York City’s ‘community schools’ expansion

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post

The Trump administration has proposed eliminating the sole source of funding for New York City’s dramatic expansion of its community schools program, according to budget documents released Tuesday.

Less than two weeks ago, city officials announced its community schools program would expand to 69 new schools this fall, financed entirely by $25.5 million per year of funding earmarked for 21st Century Community Learning Centers — a $1.2 billion federal program which Trump is again proposing to eliminate.

The community schools program is a central feature of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s strategy for high-need schools — a model he called a “game-changer” earlier this month. It is designed to help schools address the physical health and emotional issues that can impede student learning, in part by pairing them with nonprofit organizations that offer a range of services, such as mental health counseling, vision screenings, or dental checkups.

City officials downplayed the threat of the cuts, noting the Republican-controlled congress increased funding for the program in a recent spending agreement and that similar funding cuts have been threatened in the past.

“This program has bipartisan support and has fought back the threat of cuts for over a decade,” a city education official wrote in an email.

Still, some nonprofit providers are nervous this time will be different.

“I’m not confident that the funding will continue given the federal political climate,” said Jeremy Kaplan, director of community education at Phipps Neighborhoods, an organization that will offer services in three of the city’s new community schools this fall. Even though the first year of funding is guaranteed, he said, the future of the program is unclear.

“It’s not clear to [community-based] providers what the outlook would be after year one.”

City officials did not respond to a question about whether they have contingency plans to ensure the 69 new community schools would not lose the additional support, equivalent to roughly $350,000 per school each year.

“Community schools are an essential part of Equity and Excellence and we will do everything on our power to ensure continuation of funding,” education department spokeswoman Toya Holness wrote in an email.

New York state receives over $88 million in 21st Century funding, which it distributes to local school districts. State education officials did not immediately respond to questions about how they would react if the funding is ultimately cut.

“President Trump’s proposed budget includes a sweeping and irresponsible slashing of the U.S. Department of Education’s budget,” state officials wrote in a press release. “If these proposed cuts become reality, gaps and inequity in education will grow.”