Last week the Iowa City school board voted unanimously to change our school start and end times. Our decision was made after a thorough vetting process with community members and district staff. Throughout, our goal was to find a solution that would increase our students’ chances of academic success.
The current bell schedule was chosen in May 2015 by the prior board, when they chose to add 30 minutes to the elementary school day. The current schedule is problematic in several ways: There are significant elementary bus arrival delays (requiring $400,000 to fix), the secondary schedule runs contrary to what is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, and elementary students are struggling with fatigue and therefore loss of quality instructional time with late start/end times.
In October, the board commissioned a task force to study options for the bell schedule. In order for our students and families to make adjustments in work schedules and child care arrangements, the board set a goal of reaching a decision no later than February 2016.
The task force included a variety of people from our community. We reviewed scientific research on school start times and student achievement, sleep needs of adolescents and the impacts of various start times. We listened to presentations from elementary and secondary students regarding their preferences. The group sought input from secondary students with challenges outside of school related to being a parent, homeless, or financially supporting one’s family. The task force also heard from immigrant families.
In collaboration with our busing vendor, our group reviewed options for busing and related costs. We explored different ways to structure busing, such as multi-age buses. In the end, our current system of “tiering” buses was found to be the most desirable and cost effective. Given the size of our district, a gap of 50 or 55 minutes between elementary and secondary start times was necessary to avoid a massive increase in busing costs. The task force coalesced around a recommendation that elementary start first at 7:45 or 7:50.
In addition to the input of the task force, feedback was sought from the community through listening posts held at locations on both sides of the district. The listening post feedback revealed considerable preference for an elementary start time of 8 a.m.
After much discussion, at our most recent meeting, the board chose an elementary bell time of 7:55 a.m. and secondary start of 8:50 a.m. Our choice balances the recommendations of the task force, the feedback from listening posts, and from district employees and constituents. We recognize that this schedule will be embraced by some and critiqued by others. Given the unavoidable differences of opinion between the various stakeholders involved in K-12 education, it is not possible for a single schedule to be embraced by all.
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Recognizing the significant change that this new bell schedule represents from our current schedule, the board has asked administration to prepare a transition plan including an exploration of a secondary “zero hour” (aka “early bird”). We acknowledge that an end time of 4 p.m. will be a hardship for some secondary students and would like to offer options. Our juniors and seniors currently have the option to enroll at the Kirkwood Regional Center, starting class at 7:30 a.m. An expanded course offering in “zero hour” would come with increased costs, but with the estimated $116,000 in bus expenditure savings in our choice of a 55-minute gap in start times, I am hoping that our district will be able to offer this option to our secondary students.
I would like to thank everyone involved in the process leading to this decision for their input and efforts. I appreciate it, and I know that my fellow board members and the administration do as well.
l Lori Roetlin is a member of the Iowa City school board, with children in the district’s elementary and secondary schools. This column represents her opinions and not necessarily those of the board. Comments: email@example.com