Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Questions and answers about possibly changing the bell schedule

[Update: The first version of the post misstated the times of the two listening posts on this issue. The corrected information is below.]

The school board is considering changing the district’s bell schedule. We have listening posts scheduled this week and next. This post is my attempt to answer some of the questions that people are likely to have about the issue. As usual, I am not speaking for the board or the district here, but only for myself as one board member.

What is the bell schedule?

By “bell schedule,” we mean the start and end times for the school day. The current bell schedule is:
Elementary school: Starts at 8:45, ends at 3:45
Junior high: Starts at 8:00, ends at 3:10
High school: Starts at 8:00, ends at 3:10

What’s so hard about setting a bell schedule?

If we were willing to pay any amount of money for buses, setting a bell schedule would be easy. But we have too many other competing priorities (such as keeping class sizes down) to spend limitlessly on school buses. So, to keep busing costs down, we double-route (“tier”) many of the buses: the same bus that drops kids off at high school then runs an elementary school route. This saves a lot of money.

To tier buses, though, there needs to be a sufficient gap between the start of elementary schools and the start of secondary schools (junior highs and high schools). That’s the only way one bus can have time to drop off one set of kids and then pick up and drop off another set of kids. That need for a gap is what complicates the setting of the bell schedule. As it turns out, that gap has to be pretty big unless we want to significantly increase what we spend on buses. (See below.)

There are also legal constraints at work. The district is legally required to offer busing to kids who live outside a particular distance from school (two miles for elementary and junior high; three miles for high school). The law also requires that no elementary schooler ride the bus for more than an hour (each way), and that no high school student ride the bus for more than 75 minutes (each way). On many routes, that limits how many kids one bus can serve.

Why is the board considering changing the bell schedule?

The main reason we are considering changing the bell schedule is that the buses simply can’t execute the current schedule within our current budget. Elementary kids get out of school at 3:45, which means that the buses should pick them at and be on the road by 3:50. Instead, at many schools, kids aren’t getting picked up until after 4:00, sometimes even after 4:10, which means they may be getting home after 5:00. This means we’ve got little kids waiting around idle (and requiring supervision) for as long as a half an hour after school. It also means a very long day for small children. This problem is affecting hundreds of elementary school kids. Many (including me) see this as an unacceptable option.

To make the current bell schedule work properly, we would have to significantly reduce our tiering of buses. According to the bus company, this would cost approximately $400,000 more every year than we’re currently spending. That’s an enormous figure, in context. I don’t see that as an acceptable option, either.

And even if we could get the buses to pick the kids up on time, we’ve had many reports that the young kids are not doing well with being in school until almost 4:00, as well as a lot of feedback that older kids and teenagers should be starting their days later.

How is this year’s bell schedule different from last year’s bell schedule?

Before this year, our bell schedule was:
Elementary school: started at 8:30, ended at 3:00
Junior high: started at 8:10, ended at 3:20
High school: started at 8:05, ended at 3:15
Notice that the secondary schools started before the elementary schools and ended after them. This was possible only because our elementary day was shorter than it is now—it was only 6.5 hours long. So a bus could bring kids to a high school in the morning and then run an elementary route, and vice versa at the end of the day.

Beginning this year, though, the board increased the length of the elementary day, making it seven hours long—just ten minutes shorter than the secondary day. That made it impossible to start elementary last and release it first, as we had been doing. So the board decided to start and end the secondary schools first, and to start and end the elementary schools second.

Our old bell schedule had its own flaws. To make it work, secondary students had to get dropped off earlier than ideal in the morning, and had to wait longer than ideal to get picked up in the afternoon. So instead of younger kids waiting around for buses, we had older kids waiting around for buses; arguably a lesser problem, but still not ideal.

Why can’t we just go back to last year’s bell schedule?

Again, when the board changed from last year’s bell schedule to this year’s, it made the elementary day longer—seven hours instead of six and a half. The length of the school day is subject to collective bargaining, so that change is now part of the district’s contracts with the teachers. That means the board can’t just unilaterally change it. Though it’s certainly possible for the district to seek that change in negotiations, the district wouldn’t control the outcome, and there’s just no good way to assess whether there would be a cost associated with seeking that change.

Though the length of school day is subject to negotiation, the start times are not. So the board is free to start that seven-hour elementary day earlier or later than it currently starts.

If it didn’t have to go through negotiations, returning to our previous school day would probably be my first preference. It’s something people were used to, and I don’t think elementary-age kids benefit from adding an extra half hour to their school day. But the fact that it would have to be negotiated means we just don’t know whether it could be achieved and whether it would be cost-neutral. Logistically, it would also be difficult, because it could mean waiting months to determine the issue. For those reasons, we focused the bell schedule task force on options that did not involve changing the negotiated length of the school day.

(For what it’s worth: if it were up to me, that extra half hour in the elementary day would be devoted entirely to more recess and down time for the kids. Seven hours is a very long day for small children.)

What are the options?

Given that we need to tier buses, there are two main ways we can structure the bell schedule: Secondary starts first, or elementary starts first.

Secondary starts first

Right now, secondary starts first. This means the older kids and teenagers are starting earlier (8:00 or 8:05), while the younger kids start later (8:45). Many people are convinced by empirical research (or personal experience!) that teenagers are better off starting later, not earlier. If we were to stick with starting secondary first, though, we would (in my view, at least) need to adjust the schedule to enable the buses to pick kids up on time. There are basically two ways to do that.

First, we could spend more money on buses. We currently spend about $2.1 million annually on buses. If we wanted to keep our current bell schedule but have the buses pick kids up on time, we would have to spend about $400,000 more. Given our fiscal constraints, I don’t see that as a feasible option.

Second, we could increase the gap between the start times for secondary schools and the start times for elementary. To make it work without spending more on buses, elementary school would have to start an hour after the secondary schools start. That means either (1) starting the older kids even earlier, (2) pushing the younger kids even later, or (3) a little of both. An example would be:
Secondary starting at 7:50, ending at 3:00
Elementary starting at 8:50, ending at 3:50
That option isn’t very appealing. So the task force looked at starting elementary schools first.

Elementary starts first

There was a lot of sentiment for starting elementary schools first. I think people felt that younger kids are better in the early morning and more likely to get tired by late afternoon. Older kids, meanwhile, not only sleep later, but are more independent and better able to get themselves to school or to the bus even if their parents have already left for work.

So the question is: how much of a gap do we need between the start of elementary school and the start of secondary schools? A large gap is not ideal, but the smaller the gap, the more the buses cost (because you can’t tier as many of them). Again, we currently spend about $2.1 million on buses. Here’s how that would differ under different scenarios:
Secondary starts 30 minutes after elementary: $749,294 more
Secondary starts 40 minutes after elementary: $684,378 more
Secondary starts 50 minutes after elementary: $ 78,493 more
Secondary starts 55 minutes after elementary: $116,256 less
In other words, if we want to stay roughly within our current bus budget, we need at least a 50-minute gap. And a 55-minute gap is about $195,000 cheaper than a 50-minute gap.

(The dollar figures, and the gaps between them, are approximations provided by the bus company. They’re something of a moving target. But it’s easy to see why the bigger gaps reduce costs, since they mean we can tier more buses, and thus run fewer buses overall.)

So here are some examples of what the bell schedule could look like if elementary starts first:
Elementary schools: start at 7:45, end at 2:45
Secondary schools: start at 8:35, end at 3:45
Elementary schools: start at 8:00, end at 3:00
Secondary schools: start at 8:50, end at 4:00
or, if we want to save that extra roughly $195,000 annually that comes with a five-minute longer gap, we could do something like this:
Elementary schools: start at 7:50, end at 2:50
Secondary schools: start at 8:45, end at 3:55
Keep in mind that if elementary school starts at 7:45, that means that some little kid, somewhere, is getting on a bus at 6:30 a.m. Conversely, if high school ends at 4:00, that means that some high-schooler is getting off a bus at 5:25 p.m. It’s a small number of kids who ride the bus for the maximum permissible time, but it’s not zero. In any event, you can see why it’s really a very narrow range of feasible start times.

Why can’t we just spend more money on buses?

We can if we want to. But school funding is very tight, and we have a lot of other priorities that we can spend that money on. Money for busing comes out of the district’s general fund, which is the same money we use to hire teachers (and thus keep class sizes as manageable as possible). We’re also trying to direct resources toward reducing the proficiency gaps that you can see here. We’re also planning to open two new elementary schools and a new high school, which will put a strain on our operating expenses. And it was only two years ago that we went through a painful round of budget cuts, including cuts to our music and foreign language offerings. I’m not happy with any of the bell schedule options, and I don’t mean to minimize the disruption a new schedule could cause for some families. But if we’ve got additional money to spend, I’d rather put it into the classroom than spend it on school buses.

What did the task force think?

The board created a task force to examine the bell schedule issue. In choosing members of the task force, the district tried to make sure that lots of viewpoints were represented: students, parents, teachers, staff, union representatives, administrators, athletic directors, before-and-after-school-program directors, and so on. The task force met several times to hash out the various options as we learned more about them.

At our final meeting last night, we asked the task force to break into discussion groups to consider a handful of the most feasible options. The groups then reported back their preferences. Most of the groups favored starting elementary school before secondary. The first choice of most of the groups was to have a 50-minute gap between elementary and secondary start times, though some groups listed a 55-minute gap as their second choice. The most common choice for start times was 7:45 for elementary and 8:35 for secondary.

Again, these “preferences” were constrained by the choices they were given to consider. Some task force members may well have preferred a different option that wasn’t explicitly on the table. Also, the task force membership was not intended to be a random sample of the broader population, so I don’t mean to suggest that it’s a substitute for feedback from the larger community. But the task force’s responses nonetheless give you some idea of where a large group that closely considered the issue ended up.

Task force members: Thank you for your time and efforts on this project!

How can I express my preferences on the bell schedule?

You can let the board know your thoughts about the bell schedule in any of several ways:
  • by email to board@iowacityschools.org (this will go to all seven board members),
Wednesday, January 27, 6:00 - 7:30 pm, Grant Wood Elementary School
Thursday, February 4, 6:00 - 7:30, Northwest Junior High, or
  • by coming to speak at community comment before a board meeting.
(You should also feel free to leave a comment on this post, but I can’t guarantee that anyone but me will see it.)

At the listening posts, the three questions we’ll focus on are:
  • Should we start elementary schoolers before secondary schoolers?
  • If so, should secondary start 50 minutes after elementary, or should we save the extra $195,000 annually by having a 55-minute gap?
  • If we start elementary first, what time should it start?
The most helpful feedback, in my view, would be comments that help us foresee specific advantages and disadvantages with the different options and different possible start times. None of the options are problem-free—they’re all pretty lousy, really—but we want to choose the least bad set of problems, and if we know about problems in advance, we might be able to plan in ways that will mitigate them.

When will the board make a decision?

The board’s goal is to make a decision about the bell schedule by the end of February, and to put it into effect at the beginning of the next school year in August 2016.

Editorial aside

Keep in mind that Iowa is now in the bottom half of states when it comes to per-pupil state funding. If the Governor and the legislature were directing more money to the districts, there would be fewer occasions when we had to choose between a bunch of lousy options like these.


Anonymous said...

Now that the board voted to ax 18 or 19 current discretionary bus routes, these figures will need to be recalculated.

But I guess some bussing costs are increased too by providing activities busses for low income areas, adding bussing for a Kirkwood neighborhood to get to Kirkwood and needing to offer a bus for however many Kirkwood kids end up choosing NCJH and thru will probably need a bus to Liberty too. More bussing costs also by sending another elementary to a very distant junior high school.

When Liberty opens and fewer kids are bussed all the way from North Liberty to West, I imagine that will also change the dollar amounts.

Is there any way to factor in all of these changes occurring in the next 7-19 months before voting on a bell schedule?

Chris said...

Anonymous – Yes, the total dollar amounts could end up different for all kinds of reasons. But the more appealing bell schedule options are still going to be more expensive than the less appealing ones. A 55-minute gap is still going to be cheaper than a 50-minute gap, so these figures do give us some basis for comparing the alternatives.

When Liberty opens, many students who were riding buses to West will no longer be eligible for busing. That savings will be partly or wholly cancelled out by the additional expenses we will have for busing under the current secondary boundary plan (for example, busing kids from the Alexander Elementary area to Northwest Junior High). But even if the board were to change that plan and thus reduce that cost—which I think we should at least discuss—the board wouldn’t necessarily re-invest that money in buses (by choosing a more expensive bell schedule), since there are many competing uses for that money. For example, if we weren’t spending money to bus kids from high-poverty areas to distant secondary schools, we could devote those same resources to help address the proficiency gaps that we’re seeing.

Anonymous said...

I am beyond thrilled to see that our district is finally taking into consideration the evidence pointing to later start times for older kids. As our family has never been able to utilize bussing as for each level of schooling we are .1 mile too close (1.9 miles from Jr. High, crossing a highway and large areas of no sidewalks- so safe for walking), I can't speak to what it's like getting kids on busses early or late so I am only speaking to the bell times. While nothing is ideal for all families in terms of bus schedule, the changing of start times to later for the older kids will benefit all kids more, and would most likely increase test scores, attendance, etc. And hopefully people will take that into consideration instead of raising a huge stink that later endings for high school will mess with after school activities or club teams or other non-academic reasons.

Anonymous II said...

Thanks Chris. I see the board mostly reviews expenses after they are paid. Why doesn't the board examine some of proposed non-teacher and principal expenses (e.g. consultants, travel, etc.) earlier in the pipeline for more savings to put toward transportation?

Maeve said...

Great overview, Chris- thanks for doing it! I will also try to write the full board, but I wanted to chime in and say I applaud the district for considering starting secondary schools later! We have known for some time about the biological differences between teenagers and younger kids and the myriad benefits to starting secondary schools later! Given these knowns, I would hope that elementary schools start earlier and secondary schools start later in whatever changes are made to the bell schedule. I am in favor of either 50 or 55 minutes differential in start time and would trust the board to make the final decision just as long as secondary schools start later. Not having yet had a Jr. High or High School student, I don't have any suggestions for possible outcome to these changes, but I am with you- 7 hours for the elementary day is too long (unless we were adding some really great curriculum or free creative time or play)!

Karen W said...

Here is a round up of research on sleep and school start times (HT: Dan Willingham).

Karen W said...

So many moving parts. An earlier elementary start pushes any before school programs even earlier (prealgebra?), then kids in elementary band/orchestra have to sit around for an hour or more waiting to use the junior high music facilities. [Minimal delay for starting after school elementary band/orchestra is one of the benefits of the current schedule.] Of course, a later start for junior high means before school programs (jazz band etc.) don't have to start so early--but maybe creates a conflict for parents who need to drop off a junior high musician and an elementary student at the same time.

I think you are right that there are no great options given the budget situation and not being able to change the length of the elementary school day.

Anonymous said...

It seems like a lot of the discussion of secondary later starts is focusing on teenagers and their sleep.

But, realistically speaking, this is a zero-sum-game. Starting later does not magically create more time in the day. If teenagers start school later, then they won't get done with activities and homework til later, and will go to bed later still. Starting later isn't going to solve the problem of teenagers and their inconvenient sleep patterns.

What about outdoor sports practices which will run out of daylight in late fall or in early spring? What about kids trying to get home from those activities in the dark? What about the impacts on the many kids who have activities before school, such as jazz band and swim team?

How many kids are there who have no activities outside of the regular school day? What is the justification for catering to their scheduling needs, while neglecting the needs of busier kids?