Times are changing

D20 wrestles with debate over new school start times
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Dr. Susan Field and Brett Smith speak to D20 parents. (Photo by Greta Anderson Johns)

Officials in Academy District 20 thought they had thoroughly “picked apart” the issue of school start and end times before releasing a proposal in January to dramatically shift when students at all grade levels begin their school days, Chief Communications Officer Allison Cortez says.

The district started examining its times in 2020, with the goal of improving students’ mental health and learning abilities, while considering its limitations, like ongoing bus driver vacancies. It formed a 30-person committee of parents and staff members, which met during the 2021-22 school year to discuss the issues and hear from sleep experts about what’s best for kids — primarily teens — who, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and other independent researchers, shouldn’t be starting school earlier than 8:30 a.m. (they’re currently starting at 7:45 a.m.)

But it seems the district may have overlooked the impact that the shift could have on elementary school families — at least, that’s how many parents of those younger kids have interpreted the start time discussion.

Several have voiced displeasure about the new schedule D20 released on Jan. 24, which moved and consolidated start times. The district’s middle schools, which currently have start times ranging from 7:45 a.m. to 8:25 a.m., would all start later at 8:50 a.m. D20 high schools — almost all of which currently start at 7:45 a.m. — would instead start at 8:10 a.m. But elementary schools, all of which currently have start times falling between 8:15 a.m. and 8:45 a.m., would move all the way back to 7:30 a.m.

The shift means elementary kids have to be at school as much as 1 hour and 15 minutes earlier than they do under the current schedule, and Cortez says the district has received more than 125 emails about that from unhappy parents. But they have not heard as much from middle- and high-school parents, aside from a handful who are concerned that their kids will be let out too late for after-school activities (the new end times would be 3:55 p.m. and 3:15 p.m., respectively.)

The district’s intention was to put the plan into effect for the 2023-24 school year. However, it quickly reversed course when it began to hear the negative feedback.

Many grade-school parents spoke out about the start times during a Feb. 21 town hall meeting hosted by the district, wondering how they could possibly get their young children to bed early enough for a 7:30 a.m. school start; sharing concerns about them walking to the bus stop during dark early morning hours; and questioning what additional child care would be needed for working parents, since the elementary day would end at 2:30 p.m., instead of 3:20-3:50 p.m., under the new schedule.

Kids’ mental health is really important to me.
— Heather Henneman

D20 COO Brett Smith answers questions during a town hall on Feb. 21. (Photo by Greta Anderson Johns)

“I feel like the approach here has been to shove elementary off to the side [and] not give much concern to the impact on them,” one parent said during the meeting.

The town hall was one of seven scheduled throughout February and March in an attempt by administrators to explain their position, listen to the concerns of parents and generally bring down the temperature about the issue. The district does still plan to implement changes by the 2024-25 school year, but is open to “adjustments” based on what administrators hear from parents, Dr. Jim Smith, assistant superintendent for planning and engagement, said at the meeting.

Smith is one of the D20 cabinet members who’s been working on the issue, along with Dr. Susan Field, assistant superintendent for learning services. Field said that the district doesn’t want to pick “winners and losers” in the start times plan.

However, improving mental health of adolescent students is a top priority in the change and D20 is limited by its transportation abilities. There are factors that have to be considered for both of these issues, and not much wiggle room.

For Heather Henneman, a parent of four kids who attend D20’s pre-K through 12th grade Discovery Canyon Campus, it was the mental health piece that brought her to the table to participate in the district’s Start/End Times Committee.

Henneman now has two high schoolers, and is also highly aware of DCC’s history of student suicide — over 13 months during 2016 and 2017, six DCC students died by suicide, The Gazette reported. As a longtime DCC parent, she’s “lived through a lot of the tragedy,” and it colors her priorities for the start times discussion.

“So, kids’ mental health is really important to me,” she tells Sixty35. “And anything that I can do to ensure that that is a high priority, I’m going to stand up for.”

Field also opened the Feb. 21 town hall by sharing a longer history of student suicide in D20 — from 2011 to 2022, 36 students died by suicide, and because of this, the district has implemented suicide prevention programming, she said. Students’ mental health has also become a greater concern coming out of the COVID pandemic, as it has exacerbated anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation among adolescents nationwide. This has fueled the push for D20 middle and high schools to start later.

Additionally, there are only so many ways the district can slice its elementary, middle and high school start and end times based on its bus driver staffing, said Brett Smith, the district’s chief operating officer. D20 has as many as eight to 15 bus driver openings each day — which sometimes lead to route cancellations — and it has had a shortage of drivers for about a decade, he said at the town hall. Staff are usually not able to get a bus booked for field trips or after-school activities like sports games because of this, Smith said.

“Currently we have about 190 bus routes. They are supported by 101 buses and drivers,” he said. “If we go to the three-tiered [start/end time] system, we can lower the number of buses and number of drivers to 90. That would give us about 10 to 15 flexibility of drivers to be able to support field trips and other activities during the day.

“Transportation is not driving the change in start times,” he later added. “[But] we found if we’re going to change one thing — if we’re going to change start times, the order of who goes first — then let’s solve the transportation problem.”

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