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Divided St. Paul board votes to change school start times

The superintendent is to develop a plan that considers equity, alignment to research-based recommendations, achievement, budget implications, expanded child-care needs, and other factors.

Board Chair Jon Schumacher, shown during the Dec. 6 meeting of the St. Paul Public Schools board.
MinnPost photo by Erin Hinrichs

At the St. Paul Public Schools board meeting Tuesday night, a divided board passed a motion to change school start times for the 2018-19 school year so they better align with the “health and academic best interests of SPPS students.”

In the time period leading up to implementation, the superintendent — with the help of district staff — is directed to develop a plan that takes a number of factors into consideration: equity, alignment to research-based recommendations, achievement, budget implications, expanded child-care needs, student safety, strategic alignment, and opportunities for expansion of the Metro Transit partnership.

While the motion does not lay out any of the specifics, a draft proposal that guided much of the board discussion leading up to the final vote featured later start times for secondary students. Research shows that adolescents are biologically hardwired to fall asleep later, but they still need a recommended 9-plus hours of sleep a night. By pushing start times at most high schools back to the recommended 8:30 a.m. start time, the district would be setting high schoolers up for greater academic success and an improved state of well-being.

On the flip side, most elementary students would start their school day earlier, at 7:45 a.m., to accommodate busing logistics. While there isn’t much research on the impacts of earlier start times for younger students, community members have raised concerns about how the change could negatively affect elementary students’ learning and create new child-care needs.

Differing leadership styles

As Interim Superintendent John Thein and district staff continue to work out the details in the coming months, preparing to hand the project off to a new superintendent expected May 1, one thing’s for certain: Various leadership styles on the board are becoming more apparent. In the instance of school start times, one camp favored taking an assertive stance on the issue and working out the details with further community engagement later on. The others didn’t appear to be comfortable making a commitment to something that’s not yet clearly defined, as it could evolve into a change that’s not equitable for all families.

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The slate of DFL-backed members sworn in nearly a year ago — Board Chair Jon Schumacher, Treasurer Steve Marchese, Vice Chair Zuki Ellis and Board Director Mary Vanderwert — all voted in favor of changing start times. Board Members John Brodrick, Chue Vue and Jeanelle Foster all voted against the motion.

Board discussion

Kicking off the final discussion before the board cast its vote, Vue sought to add another layer of accountability to the proposed amendment even though he wasn’t giving it his vote of approval. He acknowledged the focus on equity was likely implied, but he felt it was something the board should be more explicit about when giving the superintendent and staff guidance in coming up with a master plan, given the fact any changes would have different ramifications for different families.

“If we’re going to look at this change through an equity lense, then put it on there,” he said, suggesting “equity” be added at the top of the list of areas of consideration spelled out in the motion.

After unanimously approving this amendment to the motion on changing start times, each board member offered some rationale for their stance on the matter, starting with Marchese, one of the driving forces behind the proposed changes. As he’s said before, he believes the board has the responsibility to make evidence-based decisions that are in the best interest of students. That work involves adopting changes that align with best practices and trusting staff and community members to help come up with creative solutions to make implementation as equitable as possible.

“There’s been a lot of discussion about this, a lot of conversation over many years,” he said, adding, “Whether we want to address our current schedule is somewhat different from how we want to do this.”

Brodrick  — who said he’d come fully prepared to vote against the motion, but had changed his mind, and then ended up voting against it — called on government entities to step up and offer greater support as partners in this work. As stated in the newly adopted motion, “the restructured system will impact the entire SPPS system and city,” especially in the realm of public transportation resources. He said he’d like to see the city, the county, the state and the Metropolitan Council — the entity that oversees Metro Transit — to contribute resources in support of “finding a way for all our students to go to school at a reasonable, civilized time.”

In agreement, Vanderwert said, “I think this is an issue our whole city needs to look at. [We need to] look at ways to combine resources.”

Potential impact on enrollment

Foster mentioned she had a number of concerns, based on the concerns she’s been hearing from constituents, including how any proposed changes to start times might negatively impact enrollment. With so many loose ends, she questioned the board’s willingness to truly be receptive of community input and new research that might contradict the current draft plan.

“After we’ve looked at our resources … are we willing to set aside egos to make sure we can make something that works for all kids?” she asked.

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Vue reiterated that he’s not denying the fact that secondary students stand to benefit from later start times. But the price tag of $2 million to $4 million, in his opinion, is at odds with the need to address more pressing issues like class failure rates among Native American students in the district. “We are taking money from other people, other programs, to make this work,” he said. “The urgency, in my mind, is great, but not as great as some of the other urgencies we have out there.”

Schumacher, echoing what he’s said before, emphasized there is plenty of time to come up with creative solutions to changing start times since nothing would be implemented until 2018. “This really is an opportunity to tap into certainly the skill of our next superintendent, the results  of our community engagement processes,” he said, adding he respects Vue’s position on the matter but stands in favor of moving the district toward greater alignment with research-based best practices.

Ellis noted she’s not in support of the currently proposed start times, saying a 7:45 a.m. start time for elementary students makes her “uncomfortable and nervous.” But she’s confident that detail can be addressed in the coming months. As she saw it, the vote on the table was a matter of process, about committing to being forward-thinking. “I will be voting yes because this is about process and how we get things done,” she said, noting the district is finally at a place “where we can do this and figure it out for our families and our students.”

‘I don’t want to overpromise’

At this point, Jackie Allen, the district’s assistant director of strategic planning and policy, chimed in with a word of caution. “I don’t want to overpromise that we’ll be able to come up with some sort of scenario that will have 8:30 [start times] for high school and not impact elementary,” she said.

Wrapping up board discussion, Marchese reminded everyone that the new board majority came in intending to change things up. The parameters “that were considered a given” for changing start times in the past may no longer apply, he said, framing it as a fresh start full of potential.

“We don’t know who our new superintendent is going to be,” he said. “We don’t know about all the options we’ll be thinking through with our schools. And we don’t know what we could be creative about yet.”