Status quo

Call for later high school start times falls flat in Denver Public Schools

Last fall, a top Denver Public Schools administrator sent an email to 10 secondary principals asking that high schools and sixth-12th grade campuses push their start times later this year—to 8 a.m.

It would have meant changes at many of the city’s secondary schools, most of which start between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m.

But most students and parents shouldn’t expect to see any schedule shifts this fall. Only one of the schools that received the email—Denver Center for International Studies-Baker—changed its start time, moving from 7:25 to 7:55 a.m.

A handful of Denver high schools, including the new Northfield High, Manual High and DSST charter high schools, also have start times of 8 a.m. or later this year, but such schedules were either already in place or planned prior to the email request.

While district administrators say there was never any mandate to push back start times at other schools, the email appears to be more than a casual suggestion.

Fred McDowell, the district’s former instructional superintendent for high schools, wrote in the email, “The data indicates a direct correlation to student levels of alertness and engagement. Therefore we are asking all high schools and 6-12 campuses to institute a start time of 8am beginning in the 2015-16 school year.”

Towards the end of the email, he wrote, “There will be ongoing discussion in order to work out the logistics and support needed to operationalize this across DPS (Food Services, Transportation, Athletics, After school Activities, and etc).”

The email went to principals at most of the district’s traditional high schools on Nov. 14. (See the full email at the end of this story.)

Nine months later, it appears miscommunication between top administrators and logistical obstacles stymied the late start proposal. McDowell resigned at the end of the school year and took a job in the School District of Philadelphia. He could not be reached for comment.

Greta Martinez, assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness and McDowell’s supervisor, said the email miscommunicated the district’s intention, which was to launch conversations about later start times, not change to them this year.

Asked why McDowell sent the message, she said, “Fred’s not here so I can’t ask him. It’s all in interpretation. I can’t guess what he was intending with his message.”

Why are later start times better for teens?
  • Sleep-wake cycles shift during puberty, making it hard for kids to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school.
  • Experts say it’s normal for teens to stay awake till 11 p.m.
  • It’s recommended that teens get 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night.
  • Research shows that students with early bell times get less sleep than they should, which is tied to lower achievement and higher rates of obesity, depression and car accidents.

Suzanne Morris-Sherer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, said she believes later start times are a great idea but aren’t currently feasible because of transportation constraints and sports schedules.

When she received McDowell’s email last fall, she forwarded it to her staff and asked for feedback to provide to central administrators. About a half-dozen staff members responded, most concerned about the issues she cited.

Morris-Sherer said she didn’t recall any follow-up from central administrators afterwards.

The debate about later start times in DPS and elsewhere is nothing new. But with recent calls for change from national health experts and some of DPS’s own leaders, the inertia is striking. It’s possible these kind of proposals may hold even less sway moving forward given the district’s embrace of decentralized decision-making, which gives principals’ significant autonomy for making building-level decisions.

Scott Mendelsberg, McDowell’s replacement, addressed the issue of decentralization, saying, “It wasn’t really about, ‘We don’t have to do what they’re asking.’ I think principals thought it would be an okay idea, but really did worry about the logistics of this.”

“It’s a little surprising that more didn’t go to this model, but I don’t think it’s a dead issue.”

Martinez agreed, saying there will be further conversations about moving start times with even more schools involved than the 10 targeted by McDowell’s email.

“I think we just needed a little better messaging about what this means and what this looks like,” said Mendelsberg.

The early side of late

While the 8 a.m start time McDowell requested last fall would have moved district high schools in the right direction according to research, it wouldn’t have gone as far as experts recommend.

A policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics last fall recommended start times of 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schools. And in 2002, the Colorado PTA passed a resolution urging state and federal legislation for 9 a.m. secondary start times.

Cindy Daisley, the group’s president and the mother of two North High School graduates, said even 13 years later, it’s still a big issue.

“I would love to see something happen districtwide, even statewide, because I think it’s important for our teenagers to perform better,” she said.

When her twin boys were in high school, she said, “getting them out of bed in the morning was so painful for all of us because they just required that much sleep.”

There’s science to back up her experience. It indicates that teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night and are hardwired to favor later bedtimes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on start times noted that teens who get enough sleep are at reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in car accidents, and have better grades and higher standardized test scores.

Generally speaking, no one disputes the research on teen sleep habits and later school start times. The sticking point is putting it into practice.

Navigating logistics

So what makes it so hard to change high school start and end times?

One of the biggest issues is the transportation jigsaw puzzle. Because middle and elementary school bus routes usually follow early-morning and early-afternoon high school routes, changes to the high school schedule can impact schools all down the line.

Even in DPS, where few high schoolers use district buses, transportation still matters. In part, it’s because special education students do rely on yellow buses to get to high school, so moving their start times could mean fewer district buses available to transport younger children.

Morris-Sherer said even with the current 2:50 p.m. dismissal at Thomas Jefferson, her special education students often have to leave their last class early to make it to the school bus in time. She worried that with a later dismissal time, they’d miss even more of their last class.

“It would just impact my instructional day,” she said.

Later start and end times could also cause transportation woes for general education students. For example, city buses currently make stops on Thomas Jefferson’s campus twice after school lets out. If the dismissal time were delayed, Morris-Sherrer said those students could miss the two on-campus buses and be forced to walk across the bridge over Interstate 25 for a later and more inconvenient off-campus pick-up.

Scott Mendelsberg said such issues, which might involve negotiating different on-campus pick-up times with the city bus system, must be addressed at the district level, not left up to schools to handle.

“There are solutions to…some of these concerns,” he said.

The other major challenge in changing start and end times revolves around after-school obligations including school sports, after-school jobs or family responsibilities like caring for younger siblings.

At the 2,500-student East High School, student athletes sometimes miss half of their last class to get to games on time even with the current 7:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. schedule. Principal Andy Mendelsberg, who is Scott Mendelsberg’s brother, said a later dismissal would mean an even bigger dent in class time.

At Northfield High, where the school day runs from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Principal Avi Tropper said most games will be scheduled for 6 p.m. on weeknights or on Saturdays. For sports like cross-country, in which multi-school meets are often scheduled around 2 p.m., students may have to leave early, he said.

Andy Mendelsberg said with East fielding four teams in almost every sport and limited daylight in late fall, it would be impossible to eliminate weekday afternoon games.

“There’s no way for us to work around that…We can’t play everybody on Friday and Saturday and get through the season.”

The schools that make it work

While late high school start times are hardly the norm in Denver or Colorado as a whole, they do have a small presence.

Manual’s 8:10 a.m. start time has been in place for years, said secretary Carol Grant, who’s worked at three high schools during her 20-year career in DPS.

She believes the later start makes it easier for students to get to school on time and that they’re more awake once there.

When she worked at West High School, she said, “I’d write a thousand passes in the morning” for the long line of kids arriving late.

But Thomas Jefferson Principal Morris-Sherer said the school’s 7:30 a.m. start time is not a problem for most kids.

“I don’t have kids falling asleep habitually in class,” she said. “It is what it is. You just adjust your life.”

Andy Mendelsberg said East allowed students to opt for an 8:20 a.m. start several years ago as part of an experiment that added a ninth period to the school day. Only 31 students took advantage of the option.

At the four high school locations of the Denver School for Science and Technology, or DSST, start times range from 7:55 a.m to 8:15 a.m.

The later-than-average start times were intentional, said Andrew Mendrop, manager of communications and development for the charter school network.

The physiology of teenagers was a key consideration, but there were competing priorities, he said. Network leaders didn’t want to push start times back so much that it would inconvenience parents dropping their children off before work or students with after-school activities or jobs.

Last year, the Harrison School District near Colorado Springs pushed back start times at all 20 of its schools after a committee studied the issue for two years. High schools now start at 7:45 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m, and elementary and middle schools now start at 8:35 a.m. instead of 8:10 a.m. (On Mondays only, middle schools start at 10:05 a.m. and high schools start at 9:15 a.m.)

Northfield has the latest start time among comprehensive high schools in Denver, but at least one Colorado district has even later starts.

Middle-schoolers in the Cortez-Montezuma district start their day at 8:50 a.m. and high-schoolers at 9 a.m.

Some Denver students may dream about reporting to school so late, but for now they’ll have to keep setting their alarms.

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Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.