Coming off a year of upheaval, the Philadelphia School District wants to shift most schools’ start and end times for the fall — some by as much as two hours — prompting dismay from many staff and parents.
Spurred by concerns about transportation and a nationwide bus driver shortage, the hastily announced changes affect nearly every school in the 120,000-student district. And they have many wringing their hands over the implications for child care, family schedules, and the ability of secondary students to make it to class in the early morning.
The district is proposing shifting most middle and high schools’ start times earlier, to 7:30 a.m., a move that flies in the face of American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations and recent efforts by suburban districts to move schedules later.
“Transportation should not drive your instructional program,” said Robin Cooper, president of the district’s principals’ union. “What happens if the times just don’t work for families and students?”
In the past, district schools have had latitude to set their own schedules, but Christina Clark, a district spokesperson, said the school system is attempting to establish three standard start and end times “to better support student achievement.” The uniform times, Clark said, will allow every bus to make three runs daily, and minimize the amount of time students spend in transit.
The district is responsible for bus services for thousands of students in district, charter, and nonpublic schools in grades one through six (and some older students who require special-education services) who live more than 1.5 miles from their school.
Based on a draft of the new schedules obtained by The Inquirer, most high schools and middle schools would start classes at 7:30, typically earlier than they do now, and elementary schools would start at either 8:15 or 9, which in some cases is later than they start now. (A select number of middle and high schools would start at 8:15 or 9.)
The new schedule “would also help to address the very real transportation staffing challenges due to the pandemic that the school district and other transportation agencies across Philadelphia are experiencing,” Clark said in a statement. “We look forward to engaging our school staff and families in this important conversation in the coming weeks.”
The changes were presented to schools Monday, a day before the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers’ contract-mandated deadline for schedule changes to be agreed upon by a committee of administration and teachers at each school. If no agreement is reached, a committee of district and PFT representatives will weigh in ― and if they can’t reach consensus, the matter goes to arbitration.
Anna Perng, a Philadelphia parent and cofounder of the Chinatown Disability Advocacy Project, said the shifts could be devastating, and is upset they were made without input from families.
“My heart is so heavy thinking about how families can plan their lives around these changes, particularly students with disabilities and disabled caregivers,” said Perng. “It is 10 times harder for us to find child care. We all don’t have the privilege or luxury of calling someone to pick up our kids for a staggered schedule.”
At McCall, the school Perng’s children used to attend, one in five students is an English-language learner and many are new to the country. The schedule changes will be tough “for many immigrant parents who work in hospitality and don’t have flexible work schedules,” she said.
PFT president Jerry Jordan said the hastily announced changes have prompted “confusion, frustration, and anger” and would have a ripple effect on communities, proving particularly challenging for teachers who are parents.
Also affected would be paraprofessionals, schools’ lowest-paid workers, who are typically responsible for getting students on and off buses before and after school. Many work second jobs to make ends meet, and changes to school schedules could affect their ability to do so, as well as have implications for students who work after-school jobs, union officials said.
Nick Kosiek is a social studies teacher at Fels High, whose start time would move back two hours, to 7:30, and parent of a child enrolled at Fox Chase Elementary, whose start time would be 9 a.m., 30 minutes later than it is now.
“My wife’s got a flexible boss, but now we’re pushing the boundaries of even his flexibility,” said Kosiek.
The proposed schedules shift worries Vicki Baker, a math teacher at Girls’ High, where school now starts at 8:30 but would be moved to 7:30 under the district’s plan. The change would make it tough for Girls to offer “zero period” — class time before first period that many students use to fit special courses into their schedules.
“It’s a major concern,” said Baker. “Everyone’s trying to figure out what this means.”
The high school-level changes could affect student attendance and performance.
Some high schools may make start times two hours earlier — South Philadelphia, Strawberry Mansion, Northeast, Kensington Health Sciences. In the fall, Clarice Brazas will begin teaching humanities at the Academy at Palumbo, a magnet school in South Philadelphia. Palumbo, which draws students from around the city, is being asked to start classes an hour earlier, at 7:30.
“We know that later start times are better for teenagers because of their sleep habits,” said Brazas. “For some of these kids that have to travel really far, these earlier start times are just adding to the opportunity gap that exists within our school district.”
Some districts around the country and around the region are shifting their high school start times later, not earlier, based on the research.
“I want to know,” Brazas said, “why kids in the School District of Philadelphia are not getting the same opportunities.”