catching some zzzzs

Two of Colorado’s largest districts explore later high school start times

PHOTO: planetchopstick/Creative Commons

Two large Colorado districts are considering pushing back high school start times for 2017-18 in a nod to research that shows starting later helps teens get more sleep and do better inside and outside the classroom.

Officials in the Cherry Creek and Boulder Valley districts —the state’s fourth- and eighth-largest —say they’ll hold community meetings this school year to gather feedback from parents, staff and students about the potential changes.

“It would be our hope to go forward next year,” said Sandy Ripplinger, Boulder Valley’s assistant superintendent for elementary education and co-chair last year of a task force that researched later high school starts.

The proposed start time range would be 8:30-8:45 a.m. compared to the current 7:30-8 a.m. range, she said.

Tustin Amole, spokeswoman for Cherry Creek, said the district hasn’t settled on a time range for its late start proposal. High schools there now start between 7 a.m. and 7:30 a.m.

Meanwhile, in Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district, two years of discussion and one short-lived attempt to push start times later at 10 secondary schools haven’t yielded any changes so far.

In fact, start times have gotten earlier at one DPS high school. Northfield High, the district’s newest comprehensive high school, opened last year with an 8:45 a.m. start time and this year has a 7:45 a.m. start time.

Principal Amy Bringedahl, who was named to the job last spring, said last year’s later start time came with a 4:45 p.m dismissal time that created problems for students in after-school sports or with after-school jobs, and pushed homework and family time too late in the day.

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.

A school committee of parents, teachers and administrators recommended an 8 a.m.-3:30 p.m. schedule this year, said Bringedahl. But transportation department officials couldn’t accommodate the request, settling on a 7:45 a.m.-2:50 p.m. day instead. (While district-run yellow buses aren’t provided for most Denver high-schoolers, Northfield is an exception because city bus routes haven’t been established in that area yet.)

DPS officials said Monday they’re considering the possibility of adjusting high school start times, but provided few details on their plans.

“We know that this conversation needs to include school leaders and their communities as we move forward, so that any decisions are rooted in the needs of each school,” Deputy Superintendent Susana Cordova said in an emailed statement.

The push for later high school start times has gained steam nationally with increasing evidence that when school schedules jibe with teen sleep rhythms, students are healthier, more focused, attend school more regularly and do better academically. In the last two years, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have come out in favor of start times of 8:30 a.m. or after.

A number of school districts across the country have opted for later start times in recent years, but the 52,000-student Seattle Public Schools is probably the biggest and most high-profile example. Starting this fall, high schools and most middle schools there will start at 8:45 a.m.

In Colorado, some smaller districts, including Montezuma-Cortez and Harrison, have pushed start times to 8:30 or after for some or all secondary schools, but large districts have been slower to join the club.

A big part of it is logistics. District officials everywhere say later start times for middle and high schools can impact elementary school bell times, transportation costs, sports schedules and students’ after-school obligations, including caring for younger siblings.

“It’s not as simple as saying kids do better when they don’t have to get up as early,” Amole said. “There’s so many things that go into that.”

She said Cherry Creek officials discovered how controversial schedule changes can be when they shifted middle school start times from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m. several years ago. School board meetings were packed with protesters and eventually a compromise 8:30 a.m. start time was adopted.

“There’s a lot of things we learned from that experience that we have to consider this time,” Amole said.

Boulder Valley administrators said last year’s task force, which studied scheduling issues at various grade levels, focused on examining research on late high school starts. This fall’s process, after clarifying whether late starts are feasible for the district’s transportation department, will seek public opinion on the issue.

One open question on late high school starts—particularly around their effect on interscholastic sports— is whether districts that make the change will influence others to do the same.

“If one district has a later start which then pushes athletics later, would other districts be thrown off, or would they come together?” Ripplinger asked.

Bringedahl, of Northfield High School, said there are two strands of research to consider. Besides evidence in favor of late starts and well-rested students, “There’s also the research to show the more kids are involved after school the more successful they are in life.”

“It’s the push and pull,” she said. “I certainly don’t have any perfect bell time.”

crisis mode

Adams 14 proposing expanding mindfulness and other programs for student well-being

First grade students practice reading in Spanish in their biliteracy classroom at Dupont Elementary School in Adams 14. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

The Adams 14 school district is proposing an expansion next year of mental health staffing and two programs, including mindfulness, meant to help students get out of “crisis mode.”

After significant pushback in the current year on cuts that were meant to have schools sharing mental health professionals, every school will have their own next year.

Kim Cini, the district’s assistant director of student services believes, however, that the work of helping students with mental health problems, can’t be only the responsibility of a particular staff member in a school.

“You are never going to have enough mental health workers, ever. You just aren’t,” Cini said. “We are at a time and place in education, in the nation, that it’s time for all of us to step up and get involved. You need your classroom teachers, your parents, volunteers, front office staff, everybody.”

That belief is behind Cini’s push to introduce mindfulness programming in the district’s middle schools. That programming is meant to teach students to also take charge of their own mental well-being and to teach them ways to cope with stress.

In elementary school, Cini helped introduce a curriculum called Random Acts of Kindness to help younger children learn social and emotional skills including coping with trauma, a common challenge for students in the district where more than 86 percent qualify for free or reduced price lunch, a measure of poverty.

Three elementary school principals — from Dupont, Alsup and Kemp — tried out the Random Acts of Kindness this year, and Cini said they’ve seen results. Now, she is planning to expand the program to more schools next school year.

Pat Almeida, principal of Dupont Elementary, one of the three schools using the Random Acts of Kindness curriculum this year, said students get 30 minutes daily to learn coping skills, talk about current events on their mind, and plan activities meant to show compassion for one another.

“My staff is so much more focused on that time as being part of our wraparound services for all kids,” Almeida said. “It’s just part of what we do.”

Almeida said for most students the program has big benefits, but said for some students, it’s not enough help. That means often teachers are able to identify those students who need extra help more quickly and to provide them the right resources.

Long term, Cini said she will be looking at surveys in those schools working on mindfulness or Random Acts of Kindness to see if students report an increase in feeling safe, calm, or in sleeping better.

“We need to get them to go to sleep and stop that hypervigilance and hyperarousal,” Cini said. “They’re just hyperaroused at every little thing. I mean every time Trump comes on with something about DACA, we’re off to the races over here. It’s just crazy.”

Principal Almeida said the work has also made staff reflect more about the work as well.

“As adults we think we understand compassion and empathy,” Almeida said. “But to actually think about it and teach it is different.”

Cini said staff across the district are, like students, also in crisis, and often making decisions based on urgency.

“When you’re operating in crisis mode, you are hypervigilant and you start responding and your decisions become shaped around that,” Cini said. “You see a couple of kids wear a gang-related color and as a leader you make a decision to ban the color red based on the actions of a couple of kids. That’s a pretty big thing to do. We have got to stop making decisions like that.”

Police in schools

The Denver school district is exploring the idea of creating its own police officers

PHOTO: Photo by Katie Wood/The Denver Post via Getty Images

School safety patrol officers in the Denver district would get the authority to arrest students and write tickets under an idea being explored by the district’s safety department.

The head of Denver Public Schools’ safety department says the goal would actually be to end the “school-to-prison pipeline” that criminalizes students for misbehavior at school.

The idea is that giving more authority to school safety officers who have experience with children and training in the district’s restorative justice model would mean outside police get called less often, even for matters that are potentially criminal.

This is not yet a formal proposal, but the idea is already generating pushback.

Local organization Padres y Jóvenes Unidos has worked for years to reduce harsh disciplinary practices in the district, and its staff say certifying safety patrol officers as police officers would represent a big step backward.

“To do this would undo everything you have stood on national platforms bragging about,” said Monica Acosta, the organizing director at Padres y Jóvenes Unidos. “Going down this road would double down on policing and criminalizing students of color.”

About 77 percent of the 92,600 Denver Public Schools students are children of color. Approximately 67 percent of students come from low-income families.

Police in schools is a controversial topic in Denver. Staff and students at an alternative school called RiseUp Community School are speaking out this week about an incident in which Denver police searched for a student the principal told them wasn’t there. The principal said police officers pulled their guns on a teacher during the search.

The incident sparked intense backlash – and an apology from Denver Public Schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg.

“What happened should not have happened,” he said at a school board meeting Thursday night. He said the district will participate in a city investigation of the incident and work “to ensure something like this does not ever happen again.”

RiseUp student Mary Jimenez said she and her peers were left feeling disrespected and unsafe.

“Because we are students of color and students of low-income, we get harassed and pushed around and we’re expected not to fight back,” Jimenez told the school board.

Although the incident involved city police officers, not district safety officers, community activists said it’s an example of why law enforcement doesn’t belong in schools. Armed officers create a hostile learning environment, they said.

But Denver Public Schools Chief of Safety Mike Eaton said school policing is different than municipal policing. Whereas city police would be more likely to use the criminal justice system to respond to a report of a student getting into a physical fight or having illegal drugs on campus, Eaton said district officers would be trained to first look to the discipline policy.

The policy emphasizes that consequences should be age-appropriate and that the focus should be on correcting student behavior. “Interventions should provide students an opportunity to learn from their mistakes,” the policy says, “and re-engage the student in learning.”

The district safety department employs about 135 staff members, Eaton said. Of those, 35 are armed safety patrol officers who are not assigned to a particular school but respond to incidents across the district. Those are the only officers the district would seek to certify as police, he said. Unarmed school-based campus safety officers would not be certified.

Authorizing any new group as police officers requires approval from state lawmakers.

Denver Public Schools already has 16 “school resource officers,” which are city police officers assigned to work in its large high schools and a few middle schools. Eaton said his aim would not be to increase the number of school resource officers but rather to give the district’s own security staff the discretion to handle police matters.

“We have the opportunity to directly impact the school-to-prison pipeline, to eliminate or reduce it,” Eaton said. School policing, he said, “focuses on restorative and redemptive practices in dealing with students. Students are young. They’re going to make mistakes.”

Several large, urban school districts across the country have their own police forces, including districts in Cleveland, Atlanta, and Miami. Before moving forward with a proposal in Denver, Eaton said he’d seek input from students, parents, and community members.

He has floated the idea by the Denver school board. The board president and vice president said they’re open to discussing any ideas that would make students safer. But president Anne Rowe said she understands why the community might be concerned.

“I can appreciate the initial reaction of folks when they think about an urban district thinking about certifying their officers,” she said. “That’s going to require a lot of community engagement and getting down to: What are we trying to accomplish by doing that?”