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Should Philly schools change their start times? | Pro/Con

Parents and principals are up in arms over the district's new bell schedules, but officials say it's the best bet for students. The Inquirer tapped Superintendent Hite and an engaged student to debate

School bus with the Philadelphia skyline as seen from North 17th Street just above Lehigh Avenue on Friday morning, Dec. 18, 2020.
School bus with the Philadelphia skyline as seen from North 17th Street just above Lehigh Avenue on Friday morning, Dec. 18, 2020.Read moreALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff Photographer

This month, parents of students in the Philadelphia School District received notices announcing when their children’s school days would start. The new bell schedules have three main start times — 7:30 a.m., 8:15 a.m., and 9 a.m. Parents, principals, and teachers immediately voiced their displeasure on social media and at a webinar with district officials last week.

The Inquirer tapped Superintendent William R. Hite Jr. and a local teen to debate: Should Philly schools change their start times?

Yes: Driver shortages and operational needs make changed start times a necessity.

By William R. Hite Jr.

At the School District of Philadelphia, school bell schedules are an important part of how we create school experiences that meet the educational needs of all students while efficiently addressing our operating needs. For the 2021-22 school year, the district is moving toward a three-tiered bell schedule. This move builds on schedule changes that were implemented last school year and is part of an overall effort to transition from a bell schedule that had nearly 30 different school start times across the district to a more uniform schedule. The schedule also addresses the very real and critical driver shortages districts and other organizations throughout the country are facing due to COVID-19.

The new bell schedule considers input from school leaders and their communities to help inform the selection of bell schedule times for their schools. Based on feedback from school leaders and communities, the new tiered schedule also minimizes year-on-year changes, with more than 190 schools making adjustments of less than 30 minutes and 27 schools needing no change at all.

Last school year, the district’s Transportation Services piloted a tiered service model for schools, and the district began conversations with our school leaders about expanding the tiered service model to all of our 255 school programs. With a goal to ensure that all students — regardless of where they attend school — receive the mandated number of instructional minutes set forth by the Pennsylvania Department of Education, Transportation Services is required by law to manage the transportation needs of more than 41,000 students in the City of Philadelphia. Continuing to do so utilizing the nearly three dozen different bell schedules used in previous years was simply not feasible due to the significant driver shortage.

“With staffing shortages potentially adding more time to travel to and from school for students, this approach will help ensure that all students receive the mandated number of instructional minutes.”

William R. Hite Jr.

The tiered service model utilizes school buses, vans, or cabs up to three times daily to transport different groups of students to school, offering the district the opportunity to decrease the total number of routes, improve response to unscheduled callouts/absences, and reduce ride times for students.

Perhaps the most important factor for this move is how the transition to a tiered service model will impact our students. With staffing shortages potentially adding more time to travel to and from school for students, this approach will help ensure that all students receive the mandated number of instructional minutes required by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Ultimately, our long-term goal, as much as possible, is to transition to a tiered bell schedule across the district that reflects what science clearly indicates is best for student learning.

Dating back to last May, our Chief of Schools Office, in partnership with Transportation Services, conducted a series of sessions with multiple stakeholder groups to elicit feedback and input regarding the tiered plan. This month, our school leaders are sharing information about this transition with members of their respective school communities, and we are planning additional sessions once the school year starts to engage our stakeholders in further conversations around the bell schedule changes.

We understand that this is a complex matter, but we look forward to engaging in conversations with our stakeholders to see how we can make this transition as smooth as possible. As we move forward, we must continue to work together, being flexible and understanding as we strive to carry out the work that best supports our students.

William R. Hite Jr. is superintendent of the School District of Philadelphia.

No: Earlier start times for teens flies in the face of medical advice.

By Anika Chaudhary

Here’s what I see when I picture my mornings come September: Reluctantly dragging myself out of bed after five hours of sleep, I stumble to find the light in the pitch black of morning as I get ready for school. With the tardy bell ringing at 7:30 a.m. sharp, I am up at 5:45 to get ready, have breakfast, and get transportation to school.

Sound familiar? Unfortunately, this vision comes easily to many students across the country, and now to the students of the Philadelphia School District. This past summer, Evelyn Nuñez, chief of schools in Philadelphia, announced that most district schools would be changing their bell schedules to fit a more “standardized” form. These plans, to take effect starting Aug. 30, were made in light of the shortage of bus drivers affecting the neighboring regions to the district. What is most baffling is that under the new schedule, most middle and high schools would begin at 7:30 a.m., and elementary schools would begin at either 8:15 a.m. or 9 a.m.

The change has been met by angry parents, blindsided school staff, and tired students.

I believe that the newly proposed schedules will bring more harm than help to our school communities.

It is proven that sleep directly impacts one’s daily and academic functioning. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), an adolescent should receive 8.5 to 9.5 hours of sleep nightly to strengthen their memory, build neural networks, and regulate hormones. With the district’s oldest students waking up earlier to go to school, it’s unlikely that many will be able to achieve this full amount of sleep.

Some might say that students should just go to bed earlier, but heading to bed at 8:45 p.m. is just not likely for most teens. Biologically speaking, the melatonin hormone in the body, once an individual hits puberty, naturally gets secreted later in the day than at pre- and post-puberty ages. Subsequently, teenagers do not begin to feel physically tired until up to two hours later, pushing their circadian bedtime back to about 11 p.m.

“The newly proposed schedules will bring more harm than help to our school communities.”

Anika Chaudhary

In addition to forcing students into exhaustion, the earlier school times would likely cut out time in the mornings for a full and nutritious breakfast, leading them to rely on high-sugar and caffeinated drinks throughout the day. Even worse, a study from the University of Rochester Medical Center showed that students starting school before 8:30 a.m. (as recommended by the AAP) reported more symptoms of depression and anxiety than those starting after.

And for younger students, other concerns exist. Many parents worry for the safety of their younger elementary kids waiting for the bus alone earlier in the morning if the middle and high school students start later. Moreover, finding day-care programs proves no easy feat for working parents both before and after school.

After more than a year of unpredictable challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic that kept students out of the classroom, it is important to start this next school year off on the right track and give students and their families the best chance to succeed. Changing school start times is harmful to students and families in Philadelphia, and I hope the district will reconsider this decision.

Anika Chaudhary is a current junior at West Chester Bayard Rustin High School. Through Girl Scouts and the PA Youth Vote organization, Anika is engaged in youth advocacy, civic education, and community service.

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