A Message from Superintendent Greg Baker

Thank you for watching the video about proposed school start and end times for 2011-12, reading our proposal and providing your feedback. Our goal has been to:

  • Provide an earlier elementary school start time other than 9:30 a.m. and resolve transportation issues of buses picking up students late, and;
  • Explore a later high school start time other than the current 7:45 a.m.

An added benefit of this current proposal is increased learning time for elementary students who currently attend school 6 hours per day while middle and high school students attend 6.5 hours per day.

I received more than 1,000 comments from parents, community members and staff in response to my initial request for input at the end of January, more than 1,700 thoughts from middle and high school students in February, and almost 500 responses during my latest request for feedback in March. I have read them all.

The majority of the feedback we heard and received about the proposal was positive, but I want to share throughout this letter some quotes from the survey responses that help articulate the most common concerns, the diversity of viewpoints and the complexities of this decision. Depending on individual preferences and work schedules, the voices we heard often countered one another:

 “Please start as early as possible. My 6-year-old wakes up at 6:30 and waits three hours to start school.”

“Dr. Baker, please do not start the younger kids at an 8:30 time. This will be hard for the younger kids.”

“By switching the elementary and middle school end times, parents who depend on a middle school child to watch an elementary school child due to their work schedule will lose this benefit.”

“I think it’s a viable solution and I know you took a great deal of time coming up with this proposal…The greatest resistance will come from those who think of the school district as their daycare provider. Your job is not to accommodate our adult schedules and make our lives easier. Our children are our responsibility, not yours. Thank you!”

After discussing this issue with families and staff throughout this school year and reading all of the feedback, it is clear the proposal is not a perfect solution that will address everyone’s preferences. However, the majority of those I have talked to and heard from preferred the proposed solution as opposed to our current schedule. We will work hard to address the concerns expressed as we make the following decision for next year’s start and end times:

2011-12 School Start and End Times

High School
7:45 a.m.-2:15 p.m. (Flex option ~ 9-3:30 p.m.) The high school schedule will remain for next year as it is now for most students. Many students and parents support this, while another large number prefer a later start time.

“I am currently a BHS student. Although we high schoolers may complain about getting up early, a lot of us feel that being dismissed later in the day would not be as good as being released at our current time 2:15. I feel that the 7:45-2:15 day works very well for the high schools and I would like it to stay that way.”

However, there was great support for moving toward a more flexible high school schedule.

“I think that a flexible start and end time for high school students would be amazing. Some kids (especially mine) just don’t wake up until 7:45. We also never use the yellow bus – we use WTA. It’s exciting. Thanks for being so creative in your thinking about kids.”

“Love, love love the added high school start time/finish flexibility. It lets our kids have more choice and therefore program buy-in and motivation as well. Go for it!”

Beginning in the fall at each high school, we will encourage flexible scheduling with some students starting second period and ending seventh period or through online learning. Students with a more flexible schedule would need to use WTA or other transportation methods because our buses will continue to serve a 7:45 a.m. start time and 2:15 p.m. end time.

Middle School
9:15 a.m.-3:45 p.m. The middle school start time will be 45 minutes later than it is now.

It was clear from the feedback that most elementary and middle school families prefer the 8:30 a.m. start time. From a middle school student:

“I hate the idea of starting school at a later time because little kids will get out of school before us.”

Unfortunately, we can only have one level start at 8:30 a.m. because we would need more than $1 million for more buses and have not yet been able to find a better solution that guarantees all secondary students would have a viable way to get to and from school.

Some middle school students who are not early risers shared excitement for the later start time, and staff are starting to work on before-school opportunities for middle school students such as athletics, clubs and activities. One of the most common concerns is the less daylight time for some after-school sports that play outside in the fall, an issue that elementary athletics has had to work through this year.

 “I am concerned about the late release of middle school due to those students being in sports.”

We are already working with partners such as the YMCA to explore a before-school Teen Program for students and will encourage before-school PTA activities, clubs and sports practices/games.

“I think we should give the new schedule a try. It makes sense that middle schoolers can be home alone in the morning more easily than elementary students. No matter what schedule is decided upon, there will always be those who like it and those who don't like it. The decision should not be based on who complains the most, but on which schedule truly makes the most sense for the district (students, parents, and staff) as a whole.”

Elementary School
8:30 a.m.-3 p.m. with Weekly Staff Learning Time and Wednesday dismissal for students at 1:15 p.m. The elementary start time will move one hour earlier for next year. Student learning time will increase by approximately 27 hours per year, even with a consistent Wednesday elementary dismissal.

Currently, elementary students attend school 6 hours per day while middle and high school students attend 6.5 hours per day. Grades 1-2 attended 5.5 hours per day and 3-5 attended 6.5 hours per day before budget cuts in 2010. This required the expense of additional earlier bus runs for kindergartners and grades 1-2, and did not allow for primary grades to receive instruction from specialists in music, physical education and health until this year.

This year, elementary early dismissal occurs at 1 p.m. and last year it was 12:30 p.m. Both years, the early dismissal schedules were inconsistent.

We heard both concerns and support for a Wednesday elementary 1:15 p.m. dismissal. The most common concern was about childcare issues on Wednesdays:

“Early release every Wednesday is pretty difficult for working parents. Please take this into consideration.”

Immediately after sharing our proposal, community partners have already started working on ideas to support parents with early dismissals. We currently partner with the YMCA to offer before- and after-school licensed childcare from approximately 7 a.m. until 6 p.m. at our schools. For next year, the YMCA is working on a Wednesday Adventures Camp Program from 1:15 to 3:15 p.m. at each school site.

A comment from a student:

“I was a student in a district that had half days once a week and I found it beneficial to not only have extra-curricular activities on those days, but I also heard very positive feedback from my teachers about the collaborative time.”

A huge benefit of the 1:15 p.m. dismissal is Wednesday Staff Learning Time. Elementary staff will receive personal planning time from 1:25-2:30 p.m. and collaborative team time to improve student learning from 2:30 to 3:30 p.m. They will have opportunities to use other time to extend collaboration on Wednesday afternoons.

We received support from parents and staff for the earlier start time and a consistent 1:15 p.m. dismissal:

 “We love the proposed new schedule…the new time for elementary school will be a GREAT improvement for us and the other families we know. The consistency of having the early release days every Wednesday will also be a great improvement and help our scheduling. Thank you for listening and responding.”

“I am excited about the proposed elementary schedule. The start time is much more appropriate for our students, and it sounds like the bus schedules will be adjusted so our youngest students will no longer be waiting for the bus until 4 p.m. I appreciate the Wednesday early release plan, especially the thought given to both planning time and built-in collaboration time. I hope to see much of this time dedicated to [Professional Learning Community] PLC work. It has been difficult for our staff to agree upon what time should be used for PLC's, and I hope this will solve some of that problem so we can get to the important work we need to do as grade level teams. Thank you!”

 “A heartfelt thank you for tackling this and fixing what has been a very difficult situation. Although not perfect given the budget realities, the start and end time proposal is a significant improvement. We can work with this. And thank you for the terrific efforts at communication…The effort being made is clear, whether it’s SchoolMessenger, the surveys or the video.”

“I love the new proposed schedule and the future vision. Thank you for listening to the needs of the community and combining this with what works best educationally. Love the early release Wednesdays. Cannot wait to get going on this!”

 “I just read the newspaper about your proposed schedule and really like it. The earlier arrival time will create more family for me in the evenings. Wednesday early dismissals on a regular basis I can plan for more easily than sporadic early releases that have me constantly rearranging extra childcare.”

“Hooray. This is an excellent approach to a very complicated scheduling situation. As a working parent, I am relieved to know that next year I can get to work on time and have a consistent plan for after-school care/activities. I also appreciate the way that this has been handled, out in the open, with opportunities for providing feedback. Thank you.”

I want to thank everyone who contributed ideas, viewpoints and counter perspectives to help us arrive at this viable, but not perfect solution. I have included answers below to some of the most frequently asked questions we heard throughout this process. I greatly appreciate the collective problem-solving ability of our community and look forward to making this solution work well for our students next school year.

Thank you,

Greg Baker

Frequently Asked Questions and Answers

The current schedule works for my family. Why change it?
Improving school start and end times was the number one issue emerging from my Entry Plan learning that families requested we tackle. For many families, our current start and end times do not work well. I have heard that 9:30 a.m. is too late for our youngest learners to begin school and we are unable to deliver on our promise to pick up many students from school at 3:30 p.m. Without 45 minutes between our afternoon bus runs, students at some elementary schools are not being picked up until 3:45 p.m. or later, and as they stand outside waiting for buses, this creates supervision issues. Transportation was also an issue before this school year and an added expense when we had three different elementary school bus runs and dismissal times for kindergarten, primary and intermediate grades.

What about a Friday 1:15 p.m. dismissal for elementary students instead of Wednesdays?
One of the questions most frequently asked by elementary parents is “why Wednesdays?” for a 1:15 p.m. dismissal instead of Friday.

“Please make the early release on Fridays! A lot of businesses allows their employees to get off early on Fridays and since we have to do it, why not make it worth it and give the kids/staff an extra long weekend!”

“Friday would be optimal since the work week is winding down, making it easier to leave work early. Also, it will give families a jump start on the weekend rather than a lull in the week.”

I understand that some families would enjoy starting the weekend early and that a 1:15 p.m. dismissal seems better at the beginning or end of the week for family’s schedules.

I want to encourage PTAs and other community partners to provide activities and clubs for children on these afternoons, which will help families with work schedules. I believe PTAs and community partners are more likely to offer this support on Wednesdays than Fridays. 

A benefit of a consistent, weekly 1:15 p.m. dismissal for elementary students is to improve student learning by giving staff valuable time to meet together to develop and align a core curriculum across classrooms, grade levels and schools. Our staff are also more likely to stay beyond 3:30 p.m. and use some of the other time available to them to collaborate on Wednesdays rather than Fridays. Having a 1:15 p.m. dismissal on Mondays does not work well because consistent planning and collaboration time would be lost due to the holidays that fall on this day of the week.

Is the Wednesday Staff Learning Time with a 1:15 p.m. dismissal for students for elementary only? What is the middle and high school early dismissal schedule?
Yes, Wednesdays would be early dismissal for elementary students only for next school year. This is because it helps us fix the problem of a late elementary start time and transportation issues. It is nearly a cost-neutral solution from our current schedule and has the added benefit of a slight increase in overall instructional time, plus weekly collaborative time for staff to improve student learning.

The schedule for middle and high school Staff Learning Time, elementary and middle parent-teacher conferences, and early dismissal for all students will be determined in the coming weeks. Key dates that have been determined for 2011-12 are posted at http://bellinghamschools.org/keydates. Once decided, the conference and other early dismissal schedule will be added.

Will you try to limit other early dismissal days for elementary students and reduce the number of days elementary teachers are out of their classrooms?
We heard strong support from parents that with a Wednesday early dismissal, they would like us to reduce the number of other early dismissal days for parent-teacher conferences as well as times that teachers are out of the classroom:

“I think my boss will appreciate elementary school starting at 8:30. The 9:30 start means at least one parent gets in to work pretty late! I’m not crazy about the weekly early release for elementary school. I understand that overall, my student will be in school more often, and I can see how that weekly time would be valuable to staff and teachers. But I really hope the new weekly early release will replace all or most of the early release and teacher workdays we have now.”

“The start and end times are reasonable, and consolidating the early release on Wednesday is consistent enough to plan for.  I assume the Wednesday early release will replace the currently inconsistent Monday schedule, which would be great.”

With Weekly Wednesday Staff Learning Time and early dismissal for elementary students, we will work to reduce the number of other early dismissal days and use of substitute teachers because of staff collaboration or meeting needs. Key dates that have been determined for 2011-12 are posted at http://bellinghamschools.org/keydates Once decided, the conference and other early dismissal schedule will be added.

How do we have high quality, meaningful student learning on early dismissal days?
We heard from parents who are concerned that current early dismissal days have too much wasted instructional time while students are in session. We want student learning on these early dismissal days to be as high quality as a regular instructional day and we will be working with principals and staff to address this concern. On Wednesdays, for example, our elementary students will be in school nearly five hours – close to the same amount of time our students in grades 1-2 had every day before the 2010-11 school year.  

What is the plan for the core elementary program and instructional time with specialists? How can all of our elementary schools have a counselor to serve students in need or offer world language?
This is our plan for next school year:

In this economy with reduced state funding, we cannot reach our future vision for next school year, but we will take some steps. Our federally funded Title I schools that have high populations of low-income families will have a part-time counselor to help meet the large number of student needs. Each of our elementary schools will have at least a half-time librarian, as they currently do according to size, as well as health/fitness and music time with specialists. All elementary schools will receive a small amount of flexible staffing to add to this core program with counseling, world language, literacy/math support, Response to Intervention, more music/arts, more library or special programs.

Is it possible that we could still have two bus runs in the future (middle/high and elementary) and change school start and end times again for 2012-13?
Yes, we will continue to explore how we can move all grade levels closer to the preferred 8:30 a.m. start time in the future and further increase schedule flexibility for our high school students. It will definitely take more resources and time to find a workable solution. Some suggested keeping the current schedule until we can streamline to two bus runs, but most preferred that we fix problems with the current schedule as soon as possible. We decided to make improvements to address the elementary and high school start and end time issues for 2011-12, knowing that we could make more refinements in the future.

Less than 25 percent of our high school students currently use district transportation. We received strong support from parents and students in looking at reducing high school transportation in the future and moving toward combining our middle and high school bus runs. Currently, we are unable to do this without investing more than $1 million for additional buses. It is for students in the outer areas of our district who are not served by WTA routes that we are most concerned. This impacts students’ ability to get to and from school. However, our recent conversations with WTA demonstrate great promise for the future and we will continue to pursue all options for moving from three to two bus runs. 

Isn’t it better to have a progressively earlier school start time for students as they get older and prepare for college and career?
It depends on who you ask. We heard from people who resonate with this logic and also from those who believe that younger students do their best learning early and secondary students later. Research shows a later start time is better for many students’ learning needs.

Currently, our students adapt to time changes twice yearly for daylight savings and standard time, and make other schedule adjustments annually from the end of school to summer to the start of school in September.

School schedule information is posted online at http://bellinghamschools.org/school-schedules