Last night, the Combined School Committee met in front of a large audience asking for Algonquin to move it’s start time from 7:20 am to 8:30 am. If any of them hoped for quick, definitive action, they were disappointed.
Committee members sympathized with parents and students. All were all in favor of pursuing change. But the only clear suggestion they were given by the Superintendent for a possible vote was one they didn’t support.
That’s because members saw a 20 minute change as a too small of a band-aid.
Midway into the night’s discussion, Superintendent Christine Johnson said they needed to make a decision that night and move towards that. She said she believed the district was strong and successful enough to make any change, “but we have to know what that is.”
The Superintendent said that if the committee decided to move ARHS’ start to 7:40 am, the schools would “back into” it.
Members expressed concern that the change wasn’t worth the disruption to the lower grades.
After members urged for a bigger change, Johnson shifted into a continued investigation mode. Before the agenda moved on without a vote called, Johnson told members:
I think we should continue to pursue those things that we’ve already identified, because in the process of doing that, we don’t know what we’ll determine.
She made it clear that the small shift isn’t off the table yet, because one of those “things” may show the option as more viable than they think.
Johnson is waiting on a new report from the bus company in a few weeks. It will be an early stab at fall routes. She hopes to capture some extra minutes through reducing number of needed stops and changing procedures.* They will also look at possibility of reducing buses and what that would do to costs.
While Johnson is advocating for bigger long term change, her vision is an “innovative” structural approach that she warns will be years in the making.
In the meantime, Southborough member Paul Desmond advised concerned residents to mail letters to state legislators. He advocated that parents could point out that the state’s failure to meet promised regional busing reimbursements are part of what is depriving their kids of sleep.**
The potential 20 minute shift had been raised by Johnson as a potentially no cost, minimal disruption solution. She described it as a reasonable first step. She said it was time to do something. She reminded that the first time she briefed committees on the problem was three years ago.
Southborough’s Gerry Capra said that he wasn’t sure there really is a solution without cost. He questioned whether the 20 minutes change was worth pursuing. Summing up what he heard from fellow members, he called it a compromise that no one likes very much.
Johnson did indicated she eventually wanted a bigger change. But she referred to changes to bus schedules as “oversimplistic” solutions to complex problems. She instead suggested that the problem was an opportunity for “innovative change” to look at the “total schedule” for students in their high performing school.
She referred to a pilot idea that she floated 3 years ago for a transitional start to the schools. It was never adopted. Last night, she blamed that on the issues raised about “inequity”.
Looking for structural change without inequity, she said she had talked to Principal Sara Walsh about “expanding the school day”. In a tiered scenario some Algonquin students would be bused to school for 7:20. While they began classes, buses would return to pick up other students who would return for 8:20.
Though she referred to the concept several times, she didn’t provide detail on how that would work. And she followed that it would take at least a couple of years for ARHS to develop
an innovative schedule that’s going to embrace all the practices that we feel we would like to see in place. And if are we willing to wait and do one schedule change with the possibility of two tiering – there will be a cost factor to that. . .
that’s the kind of conversations we should be having, along with the start time. So, that’s a conversation I think the school committee needs to embrace.
The meeting began with public comment from an audience citing lack of sleep as causing problems for students’ health, depression, stress, drug use, and other problems. You can read more about the public comment in Southborough Wicked Local’s coverage.
During the meeting, an Algonquin teacher Christina Smith presented her findings on the issue. She explained to the audience that she had been specifically asked to see if there was a way to move the start time to 7:40 am with no additional cost and minimal disruption to K-8 students. She concluded the answer was no.
She questioned if a schedule change to attempt to address “a perceived need for more sleep for the adolescent” was possibly an example of “solutionitis”.
What problem is this shift in school time attempting to address and how will we know if we are addressing the problem?
She listed a number of other stressors for students. Getting back to the subject, she referred to issues around bus costs and driver shortages. She said that consolidating stops could make some gains in minutes, but we shouldn’t expect to find 20 minutes worth.
She found that all of the districts’ other schools would be effected “in some way” by the schedule change. She cautioned about impacts to extended day programs, PreK-12 teachers, and issues with traffic patterns. And she concluded that they may want to discuss whether the 20 minute change would:
actually produce measurable gains in students achievement and student emotional health and wellbeing.
Following the presentation, there was a long discussion among committee members sharing their thoughts. Members were overall in favor of fixing the start time but had several concerns and some conflicting opinions on how to proceed.
Members started by worrying about the impact of 20 minutes on K-8 schools.
Kathleen Harragan worried that the afternoon buses would run into more traffic, making the commute time for students even longer. Marybeth Strickland wondered if an extra 20 minutes in the morning for little ones would trigger more families needing to use morning Extended Day programs. Lynne Winter remembered that at the start of the school year, families would get upset when late running buses left kids sitting in hallways in the afternoon. An extra 20 minutes would make that worse. Patti Kress worried about the youngest students getting off the bus after dark.
Keturah Martin acknowledged it was complicated. But she wondered about working on a way to flip the bus schedule to have the younger kids go first. While she wouldn’t love bundling off her young ones early, “they’re up already”. And she would be helping make sure they get enough sleep when they are teenagers.
Johnson said that the younger kids’ routes take longer which would add to the schedule. And there’s issues around kids coming home earlier with no one home yet to watch them.
Desmond wondered about combining middle and high school bus routes. Johnson said that would require more buses.
Meanwhile, members argued that 20 minutes wasn’t enough of a change to help the high school students.
Capra said he’d rather look at working towards overcome funding hurdles to make a real change. He asked for a refresher on how much it would cost for Algonquin to have its own buses. Those who didn’t know or recall showed a bit of sticker shock at hearing at least $700K higher. Harragan said they would also lose economies of scale for the K-8 routes.
Harrigan defended the administration and committees against some earlier commenters who said they had done nothing for years. She referred to a lot of time put in by the administration on looking at the changes and how everying is impacted.
She followed that she would rather that all of the “cycles” that go into making a 20 minute change be spent on working towards a real change. She said she would rather see the administration spending their time on innovative change like virtual learning. Johnson later indicated that was one of her envisioned innovations, saying “we know that’s how kids learn in the 21st century.”
At multiple points, Johnson referred to the challenge of a changing target since her first presentation in March 2015. One legitimate example was studies that say middle school students also need more sleep. But she also recalled that in her first presentation someone suggested changing the schedule by just 5 minutes. That was actually a suggestion by member Paul Butka to gradually shift the schedule 5 minutes each year until they reach the ideal start. No one in the meeting had suggested that 5 minutes might be a fix in itself.
There will be individual school committee meetings in April and May. So there may be updates on coming agendas. But Johnson has made it clear that actions need to be in consensus across the three districts. The next Combined meeting doesn’t take place until June 20th.
*Johnson painted the bus report as the most in depth look they’ve taken at analyzing the next year’s bus routes and stops well in advance. She said she hopes that they can capture some minutes through changes to routes, consolidating stops, and by not having kids sit on buses in the morning – waiting for staff to accept them into the schools. She also wants to look at taking students with parking permits off the routes if they don’t plan to use the bus.
**State reimbursements for regionalization: Busing costs are the reason the high school’s schedule is tiered with lower schools, rather than run concurrently. Desmond pointed out that when schools were regionalized a 100% reimbursement on busing was promised. Instead, only a portion comes back. He thought the school might receive about 60% reimbursement. But an article by SWL this week indicates it’s usually about 73%.
Desmond said that he’s been told legislators pay attention when they get more than 10 letters on an issue – not emails. Southborough residents looking for information on their state legislators and other elected officials can click here. And it might be good timing for letter writing, since the State Auditor just publicly called for increased reimbursements.