Outcry over start times at BPS meeting in Mattapan

Boston Public Schools Superintendent Tommy Chang, standing at right, addresses a meeting at the Mattapan Early Elementary School. Jennifer Smith photo

Parents and school employees expressed forceful displeasure with a controversial plan to change the start times for Boston Public Schools at a packed meeting at the Mattapan Early Elementary School on Tuesday night. Officials say the plan has been put on a short pause to reassess whether the proposed changes themselves need to be overhauled.

In a Friday letter to BPS families, Superintendent Tommy Chang said he stands by the new approach, which calls for phased start times across the city's 125 public schools beginning every 15 minutes between 7:15 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., but is open to suggestions.

The policy, passed by the School Committee on Dec. 6, prioritizes “starting secondary schools after 8 a.m., dismissing elementary school students before 4 p.m., prioritizing students with special needs and medical issues, reinvestment in classrooms, and before and after school programming,” according to Chang’s letter.

The three-hour evening meeting at the former Mattahunt school attracted about 100 stakeholders, many of whom who said the school department had demonstrated a lack of transparency and operated in “bad faith” when conducting outreach and evaluating the potential impact of the changes on local families.

Blue-clad staff from the Mildred Avenue K-8 school in Mattapan ringed the room, emphasizing in their public comments that the Level 1 school was facing a dramatic two-hour jump from a 7:30 a.m. start time to a 9:30 a.m. beginning, against the wishes of most Mildred Ave. faculty and parents.

“Our major concern is this change in start and end times at Mildred Ave. actually puts us out of compliance with the research that informs two of your four policy initiatives,” said first grade teacher Holly Moulton. The new dismissal, at 4 p.m., puts us “on the cusp of compliance” and changes their desirable 7:30 a.m. start, she said. As the other Mattapan schools have seen no change or only 15 minute changes in start times, “this drastic shift feels like a punishment to a school that's obviously doing something right,” Moulton said.

The meeting was one of ten called to solicit public feedback into a plan unanimously approved by the seven-member school committee. In consultation with researchers at MIT, the school department rolled out the new bell times meant to push back high school starts and equitably arrange starting times for schools across the city.

Chang said on Tuesday that the initial outreach process “was not deep enough. Officials said that about 10,000 parents, teachers, and others were surveyed on new scheduling, but there was no public debate on the times. “You think there’s enough engagement, but there is not enough,” Chang said. “You have to double and triple down.” He described oversights of new pressures to families’ time and finances as "unintended consequences for very well thought-out policies.”

Parents, teachers, and after school program-runners laid out a damning portrait of the policy’s impact. Mattapan resident Alan Gentle said even his two-parent household would be strained with his three children having three different start and dismissal times.

“My school day would start officially at 5:30 in the morning, and I have be at work by 9,” Gentle said. “I don’t have the option to leave my job at 2:30 in the afternoon. Neither do I have the option to walk out of my job at 4. The economic impact on us is just insurmountable.”

Some at the meeting were concerned about early start times affecting whether children could eat before school. While no one disputed the benefit to letting high schoolers start later, others said they worried about lost participation in extra-curriculars or completing homework on time. They wondered why dramatic changes were pushed through for schools like the Henderson Inclusion School, which serves high volumes of special needs students and now faces a 7:15 a.m. start.

Almost all who took the microphone asked that the school department be honest about the available funding and actually incorporate feedback from the meetings.

And the equity argument falls short, civil liberties advocates wrote in a letter last week.

“The burden of these changes will fall disproportionately on families of color,” wrote Tanisha Sullivan, president of the Boston branch of the NAACP, and Matt Cregor, education project director with the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights. The change is spread across racial groups in the city, but “this ignores the fact that parents of color are disproportionately in lower-wage jobs, and are less likely to have the flexibility needed to build their schedules around a school day that ends at 1:15 or 1:55, let alone pay for any resulting need in afterschool care,” they wrote.

Schedules will be finalized in mid-January, Chang wrote in his Friday letter, after the meeting feedback is reviewed at the Jan. 10 school committee meeting.

Although the school committee meeting and any possible bell time adjustments will take place after the Jan. 3 priority registration period begins, Chang wrote that families will be able to amend their choices until the priority period ends on Feb. 9.

After the meeting on Tuesday, Chang said, "Right now the new start times are put on hold, and so by Jan. 10, I want to honor what we committed to, which was listening to as many parents [as possible]. A lot of parents have told us ‘there’s a lot more we want you to hear,’ and we want to do that.”

When they return from winter break, “we’re going to work with the school committee and we’re going to make a final decision on this.” he said.

Meeting attendees were openly skeptical of the school department’s ability to analyze “the sheer volume of human data” by that time, with several calling for a moratorium on the process for at least the next year.

Several elected officials attended the Mattapan meeting: state Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry, state Reps Dan Cullinane and Russell Holmes, City Councillor Tim McCarthy, and Rahn Dorsey, Boston’s chief of education.

As the Senate’s Education chair, Chang-Diaz said she recognized the “damn hard job” the city was handed: limits on raising property taxes and less money from the state than promised. “I’m frustrated and angry at this proposal, but I do believe that there are good intentions,” she said.

Five councillors —president Michelle Wu and Ayanna Pressley, Annissa Essaibi-George, Tito Jackson, and Matt O’Malley — sent a letter to the School Committee last calling for a better plan and asking for a year before any changes took place.

At Tuesday’s meeting, McCarthy said that he has heard “hundreds of stories about how this negatively impacts their families,” calling it “an epic failure of communication that started this, which flips families upside down, and it’s really detrimental.”

Another meeting is scheduled for Wednesday, from 6 to 8 p.m., at McKeon Post, with city-wide meetings running through Thursday. Full lists of meeting schedules and proposed start times are available at the BPS website.