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Indianapolis Public Schools considers letting high schoolers sleep in

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat
Indianapolis Public Schools is discussing making start times later for high school

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.’ ”

men of color

New York state charges forward with its ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ initiative

When young men of color enter high school, they often do so with the deck stacked against them. That’s what a panel of young men from Ithaca and Albany told a room of education policy officials and lawmakers on Friday.

“There’s a mold for us that they want us to fit in,” one student said.

“No one realizes how much potential, not only white students have, but every student has,” another added.

New York state’s top education leaders convened in Albany Friday to tackle the problem posed by these young men: How can the state raise educational achievement for boys and young men of color?

Only about 68 percent of black and Hispanic students graduate on time, while 88 percent of their white counterparts do, according to state graduation rates released last week. Male students fare worse than female students, with a 76 percent graduation rate compared to 83 percent for female students.

The conference is part of the state’s My Brother’s Keeper Initiative, modeled on President Barack Obama’s national program geared toward boosting opportunities for young men of color. Policymakers spearheading New York’s initiative scored a big victory last year, securing $20 million from the legislature and officially becoming the first state to accept Obama’s challenge.

Though the political winds in Washington have changed since then, Friday’s conference sent a clear message that, if the state’s top education officials have anything to do with it, this strand of Obama’s legacy will live on in New York.

Attendees included State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia, Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa and assorted lawmakers and superintendents.

“For me, this is the end of the beginning,” said Stanley Hansen, the State Education Department assistant commissioner who runs the program. “We will start today: Staff will be contacting your schools and communities, and we will be out there in force.”

So far, the state has split the $20 million into grants that encourage the recruitment of a diverse pool of high-quality teachers, along with family and community engagement, and programs focused on college and career success. The department is pushing for another $20 million in this year’s budget.

But Regent Lester Young, who is leading the effort on New York’s education policymaking board, reminded the crowd that it will take more than funding to radically change outcomes for young men of color.

“This is not about $20 million because this problem, this challenge, is not going to be solved with $20 million,” Young said. “This will be solved when we decide to change the narrative.”

turnaround time

This Harlem school has one of the highest dropout rates in New York City. Meet the principal working to turn it around.

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Geralda Valcin, principal at Harlem's Coalition School for Social Change

Just two months after becoming principal, Geralda Valcin’s plan to reduce her school’s dropout rate landed her in a parking lot at Rikers Island.

One of her students at the Coalition School for Social Change had been incarcerated, so she made the trip — with a care package of clean t-shirts and socks in tow — to convince the jail’s staff to enroll him in a U.S. history class, one of the only courses he needed to earn a diploma.

“The principal at Rikers was like, ‘You really came up here to do this?’” Valcin recalls. “It fell on deaf ears.”

The jail wouldn’t let her visit the student or place him in the class Valcin requested, but that was only part of the reason for the trip. “He totally appreciated us for it,” she said. After his release about six months later, the senior returned to school and is on track to graduate this year.

Valcin chalks this up as a success story, but acknowledges she has many other students who need that type of support. At her Harlem school, more than a quarter of the ninth-graders who started in 2012 dropped out at some point during their high school careers, meaning they left without enrolling in another school. Only a handful of other traditional high schools in New York City had higher dropout rates, according to new statistics.

Valcin, who became principal last March after more than five years as assistant principal at Bronx High School for Law and Community Service, says she’s ready for the challenge.

She has spent much of the past year reinforcing systems to identify students early who are at risk of dropping out, and working with her school’s nonprofit partner to intervene. And the stakes are high: Coalition is one of 86 schools in the city’s “Renewal” program for low-performers, which offers schools extra social services and academic support, but which must show signs of progress in return.

Though her previous school wasn’t in the program, it also struggled with low graduation rates. It was “pretty much in the same predicament,” she said. That school boosted graduation rates by almost 20 points during her tenure, eventually besting the current citywide average of 72 percent.

Though graduation rates at her new school have started to climb, Valcin isn’t sanguine about the work ahead of her. For one thing, her students — roughly 92 percent of whom are black or Hispanic — often arrive far behind grade-level. Three-quarters come from poor families; 35 percent have disabilities.

Valcin isn’t willing to speculate about why Coalition’s dropout rate is higher than other schools with similarly high-need populations, and is careful not to assign blame. “The numbers spoke for themselves,” she said. “Coalition hasn’t graduated 50 percent of its students in six years or more. A lot of the work probably wasn’t happening.”

Soon after arriving, she launched a “Saturday academy” to help students stay on track and prepare for the state’s exit exams, and began carefully watching students who had attendance or disciplinary problems early on. “If that pattern begins, you’re almost doomed,” Valcin said.

That’s why, before students start classes in the fall, school staff review their middle school records and conduct home visits, so they can talk about previous problems before they crop up again.

“From the beginning of the year, we have highlighted a cohort of kids that without significant additional support wouldn’t cross the finish line,” said Derek Anello, a program director at Partnership with Children, the school’s nonprofit community partner. “We’re starting with ninth-graders before they’re even in the building.”

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Coalition School for Social Change

The school zooms in on students who don’t earn passing grades during the first few months of school, and offers extra academic help. (Valcin keeps a color-coded spreadsheet on her desk that tracks student progress toward graduation.)

If a student is showing up late — or not at all — they’ll likely get a knock on their door, sometimes from Valcin herself, or from a staff member at Partnership with Children. And if they’re routinely showing up late to class due to an extra-long commute, school officials might help the family find a school that’s closer to home.

City officials are expecting those efforts to produce significant results this year. Under the benchmarks assigned to the school through the Renewal program, its graduation rate should increase to 63 percent this school year, up from 46 percent. The education department considers graduation rates in decisions about whether to close or merge schools in the program.

Partnership with Children’s Anello is optimistic about meeting that goal partly because of Valcin’s embrace of his community organization. “Not every principal allows the [nonprofit partner] to be their right hand,” he added. “That’s not consistent across Renewal schools.”

But the school faces strong headwinds that make it hard to attract students who are more likely to graduate, including intense academic segregation. Among last year’s ninth-graders, for instance, fewer than five students had passed either their eighth-grade math or reading tests.

The school’s inclusion in the Renewal program, historically low graduation rate, and sagging enrollment have also signaled to prospective families that the school doesn’t have a strong track record.

In fact, Valcin has been reluctant to aggressively market the school. “I don’t want to go on the street and say, ‘Hey send your kids to this school’ given the condition we’re in currently.”

But she’s banking on this year’s graduation rate changing that calculation.

“The day after graduation, I’ll be on the corners passing out fliers,” she said.