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.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

School board agenda for January 26

Sorry to be posting this so late; I was distracted by drafting a longer post about the options for changing the bell schedule, which I hope to post within the next couple of days.

Some of the items on the agenda for tonight’s board meeting:

Discretionary busing. The district has to provide busing to K-8 students who live more than two miles from school and to high school students who live more than three miles from school. The district can choose to provide buses to kids who wouldn’t qualify for them based on distance from school; that’s known as “discretionary busing.” We have done that for some neighborhoods, sometimes on the theory that there were particular safety concerns. Director Chris Lynch has proposed that we change our criteria for providing discretionary busing to focus exclusively on areas with lots of kids who are “at risk” of not getting to school, rather than on safety. You can read his full proposal here. More information here.

Redistricting. We’ll discuss our process for deciding how to redistrict elementary attendance zones as we plan to open two new elementary schools in 2019, and in particular our process for gathering community input. At our work session, a neighborhood “caucus” system was proposed, under which people would gather input from their neighborhood (however they define it) and submit that group feedback to the board. The proposed form for that feedback is here. Some board members (including me) raised concerns about whether that process would be sufficiently inclusive. We’ll discuss that issue again tonight. More information here.

An update on the bell schedule task force. I’ll post more on this topic soon. Information here.

Magnet school. We’ll discuss the results of the district’s survey about the possibility of starting a magnet school. Information here.

We’ll vote on the proposed 2016-17 school calendar. The proposal is here.

We’ll discuss our preliminary budget assumptions for 2016-17.

And more! The full agenda is here. Feel free to leave a comment below about anything that catches your attention.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Agenda for January 12 school board meeting

At tonight’s meeting, the school board will review the district’s Annual Progress Report. (Related links here.) If nothing else, the report will give you an idea of just how much time and money the district puts into data collection. Yet, for all the data, how much do we know about cause and effect—and in particular about the long-term effects of our school practices on kids’ adult lives?

We will also have a work session in which we begin discussion of the process of drawing new elementary school attendance areas in anticipation of the opening of two new elementary schools in 2019. This will include a review of the rationale for the previous board’s decision on secondary boundaries, including the decision to send kids from the Alexander Elementary School attendance area, on Iowa City’s far south side, to Northwest Junior High and West High. Full information here and here.

The full board agendas are here and here; chime in if anything catches your attention.