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School & District Management

6 Big Barriers to Restructuring School Schedules

By Mark Lieberman — February 25, 2020 6 min read

A growing body of research provides evidence that schools can benefit from rethinking their schedules, whether by pushing the start time to later in the day, eliminating one day a week, or otherwise reshuffling how students and teachers spend their time together.

Before districts and schools can pull the trigger on a massive change, though, they’re likely to face a wide variety of obstacles and barriers. Some of them are merely a byproduct of well-established norms and traditions around schooling, including an outdated agrarian calendar. Others reflect deeper insecurities among groups of people with a stake in the success of a school’s approach.

Education Week talked to school leaders who have attempted with varying degrees of success to rethink schedules, and to advocates and organizations that work with schools on facilitating significant change. Barriers to those changes tend to fall in the following six categories:

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Staff and support staff

Teachers approach planning their lessons by filling the available time they have. If that amount of time changes, teachers might balk at having to come up with a new approach to covering the material. A schedule change can be even stickier if it substantially changes teachers’ hours or responsibilities, which could mean a lengthy renegotiation of a teachers’ union contract and a testy battle over a wide range of specifics.

Meanwhile, support staff, from sanitation and culinary workers to bus drivers and crossing guards, can feel the effects of a schedule change—and if those workers aren’t full-time employees, a small shift in their hours and duties can make a major difference in their well-being.

Though teacher objections are an obstacle, the conditions in which most teachers work are inherently hostile to innovation, argues Bryan Hassel, the co-president of Public Impact, a nonprofit working with school districts to help them make better use of time. He advocates more collaboration to cut down on wasted time and redundancy during the school day.

“If the teachers on the team see themselves as a team working together with these 100 kids, … there’s much more of a chance to say, ‘I can specialize in what I do best; together we’ll do better than we would at each time by ourselves,’ ” Hassel said.

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Concerns and objections from parents

A significant change in the timing of the school day could force parents to alter their work schedules or put them in a logistical bind when it comes to pickup and drop-off, especially when someone needs to be home to watch children before and after the school day. Those challenges can be particularly acute for parents and guardians who live apart. And even without obvious logistical hurdles, parents often resist tweaking ritual and tradition.

Chris Fiedler, the superintendent of School District 27J in northeast Colorado, got firsthand experience navigating parents’ emotions when he led several meetings in advance of the district’s decision to start high school early in 2017, and again, to move to a four-day week in 2018 amid budget cuts.

“The first meeting, they were ready to riot,” Fiedler said. They later came around, he said, but not before a new approach to soliciting community feedback in person: “It was trying to be humorous, but we told them, if you want to yell at us, yell on your feedback sheets.”

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Athletics and extracurriculars

Though they’re ancillary to the core of the school day, after-school activities play a major role in the daily lives of students and the formation of local communities. Sports, band, and theater schedules are often set by institutions distinct from the schools themselves, necessitating ample practice and rehearsal time outside school hours. Pushing those activities later in the day, for instance, can leave students with less time than they’d otherwise have to complete homework and get adequate rest.

In 2017, then-Superintendent Tommy Chang of the Boston school district proposed an ambitious plan to start many schools later and align start times across the district. The effort failed for a variety of reasons, including some he didn’t anticipate.

“A lot of the nonprofit programming for after school specifically was tied to specific schools. So when a school changes the start time, the end time also changes, thus the nonprofits were also being affected,” Chang said. “We were thinking about our immediate end users, clientele, and stakeholders. Nonprofits are a secondary stakeholder group.”

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Cost of change

Even if everybody involved wants to make a change, finding the time and money to plan and execute it is another matter entirely. Many school districts lack the budget and resources to devote to planning a complex operation. Some school districts have failed to garner public support for changing the schedule because no nearby school systems have done something similar. Leadership is a factor as well—building trust with parents and teachers takes years, which means a new administrative team can’t simply sweep in and make enormous changes right off the bat.

Jennifer Davis, the president and co-founder of the National Center for Time and Learning, has seen in her organization’s recent advocacy work more enthusiasm for deviating from the norm—but not without relevant nearby examples.

“That ability to network, to ask advice, to look at data, to learn from others that are holding similar roles in the community is hugely valuable,” Davis said. “The comfort level is much higher when you can go to visit a district that has already done it for a school.”

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If school starts at a different time from before, it’s no simple matter to rearrange bus schedules accordingly. Many districts have a fixed number of available buses that have to run on a strict timetable to meet the demands of various schools. Some districts even share buses with other districts, further complicating logistics.

When former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie in 2014 pushed school districts in the state to consider revising start times, the Freehold Regional High School district came up against a fairly concrete obstacle, according to Superintendent Charles Sampson.

“We have six high schools. We run them on different start-time schedules to accommodate our tiered busing. We met with state officials to take a look at going to one uniform later start date,” Sampson said. “When we dug into it, it looked like it was going to be an additional $9 to $10 million in busing costs. It was purely a financial barrier—$9 to $10 million wasn’t materializing out of thin air.”

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Policy mandates

The codified rules at the district, local, and even state levels can stand in the way of rethinking schedules. Fixed dates for state testing leave schools with limited opportunities to radically reshape the structure of the school year. State-mandated caps on class size and the amount of time students spend with nonteaching personnel can thwart plans to engage students differently throughout the day.

Smaller districts with minimal resources feel the effects of certain policies particularly strongly. John Unger, the principal of West Fork Middle School in Arkansas, said his school is required by the state to offer music classes to all 8th graders, but his middle school shares its music teacher with the high school. “If we only have one hour a day that teacher is available, we’re stuck, we’re handcuffed to what we can offer,” Unger said.

A version of this article appeared in the February 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as What’s in the Way of Change?


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