Minneapolis school start times under review

After surveying parents, district considers fall pilot

The district is proceeding cautiously on a plan to adjust some bell times next fall. Credit: File photo

Minneapolis Public Schools is taking tentative steps toward changing some bell times next fall.

The district surveyed parents on possible adjustments to start and dismissal times in January and planned to make changes at a small group of pilot schools in 2015–2016. But Chief Financial Officer Robert Doty said the district was still “in an exploratory phase” and that not even the pilot was a certainty.

“We’re waiting to get the results from the survey and look at all the information we have, and then we’ll be able to look at what part of the system we really want to effect and in which phases we want to do that,” Doty said.

After a timeline posted on the district’s website raised concerns about the timing of changes, the district pledged in January to announce which schools would participate in the potential pilot program before the school choice deadline. School request cards are due Feb. 28.

More than $30 million of the district’s nearly $541-million budget for the current school year was dedicated to transportation costs. But a bell time change doesn’t just impact the district’s budget; it affects the sleep routines, work schedules and childcare arrangements of potentially thousands of families.

It’s a fraught issue for school districts, and that’s why Minneapolis is proceeding with caution.

St. Paul Public Schools came close to adjusting bell times this fall, but in October its school board voted to delay the decision a full year. The district aimed to start the school day later at high schools and earlier at elementary schools, but the parents of the younger students pushed back.

“What we draw (from St. Paul’s experience) is, number one, it’s a complicated issue, and take some time to figure it out — and that will be something that we weigh, for sure,” Doty said. “I think it probably also shows the incredible diversity of opinions and needs, transportation needs, that a large urban school district has, as well.”

Staggered starts

There’s a greater than two-hour difference between the district’s earliest start time and the latest.

The bell rings at 7:30 a.m. for students at 14 schools, but not until 9:40 a.m. at seven other district schools. Students end their day as early as 2 p.m. or as late as 4:10 p.m.

Doty said school buses maintain a close to 90-percent on-time arrival rate across the district, but he wants that number even higher. The district also aims to reduce the amount of time students spend on the bus and waiting at the bus stop.

“We are viewing the experience of the student on that bus as an extension of the school day,” Doty said.

Start times are staggered to allow for buses to complete multiple routes, picking up and dropping off students at an early-start school before heading out on another run for a school with a later morning bell. Reducing the number of bell times could require more spending on buses or transportation personnel, but it’s not clear yet whether that’s a likely outcome of the pilot.

“Really what this was coming down to is we need a more robust transportation system that provides more flexibility, more choice and is just way more efficient,” Doty said.

He said the district’s current transportation contract expires in June.

Students at the district’s seven traditional high schools all start their days between 7:56 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., and that’s not going to change under the pilot. In 2012, the district began shifting high school transportation to MetroTransit from yellow school buses and issued the teenaged students Go-To bus passes. 

Families adjust

To get his second grader to Armatage Montessori by 7:30 a.m. each morning, Ryan Lindberg regularly wakes up at 5 a.m. — “which, three years ago, I would’ve thought was insane,” he said.

But Lindberg’s family has learned to live with a school day that starts early and ends early. Bedtimes come early, too, even on nights when his son plays with his parks league basketball team.

“It actually works out pretty well for me,” Lindberg said. “It allows me to be in the office by 8 a.m. with a lot of regularity.”

At some late-start schools, the extra-curricular activities get scheduled at the start of the day. Lake Harriet’s upper campus offers a twice weekly, hour-long Spanish program before the school day starts at 9:40 a.m., said parent Leota Pearson, who added that the later start works well for her family.

Parent Joshua Sillers called Windom’s 7:30 a.m. bell “a big pain,” but added his wife doesn’t mind the early start for their third grader. Sillers, who is employed in telecommunications and works from home, regularly drives his daughter to school in the morning but then has to wait to run errands.

“I’ve fallen asleep inside Home Depot’s parking lot waiting for them to open,” he said.

Like several other parents who discussed the potential pilot in January, Sillers was open to a shift in start times, as long as it wasn’t too drastic.

“If they switched Windom to (a) 9:40 a.m. (start), I think I’d have to pound my head against the wall,” he said.