Modernizing the School Schedule in Boston: A Debate Worth Having

Boston Superintendent Tommy Chang has a lot on his plate.  Among other challenges, the district is facing a sizeable budget shortfall; last week at a Boston Foundation event an audience of over 200 heard loud and clear from former Chairman of the Education Committee of the Boston City Council, John Connolly, that only by addressing the structural budget problem, will the city be in a position to invest more in our schools. While there are other areas to reduce spending (e.g., reducing the district’s outsized ~$100M annual transportation outlay), it’s hard to imagine how the structural budget problem can be solved without closing more underutilized school buildings.  Doing that is always difficult, and in cities across the country parents and teachers have strongly opposed such proposals.  That will no doubt happen in Boston as well, as it did the last time school closures were enacted here.

The consequences of inefficient resource allocation across BPS are real.  I serve on the board of the Orchard Gardens Pilot School, and each year the progress that amazing school has made is jeopardized due to BPS budget cuts which impact important programming and staffing levels. 

Given the magnitude of the budget challenge, I was pleasantly surprised to read in the Boston Globe today Superintendent Chang’s proposal to start the school year earlier and rethink vacation schedules.  I have worked for the last 10 years to encourage districts and schools to redesign schedules to better meet the needs of students, teachers and families.  The superintendent’s proposal is an important one that would help address both the documented summer learning loss that so many low income students face and absenteeism around the holidays when some students travel to see grandparents and other family members in other states and countries.  More importantly, I was pleased to read the quote from union leader, Richard Stutman, that schedule changes are on the table in the negotiations around the new union contract. 

Giving schools more flexibility, as Pilot Schools, turnaround schools and charter schools have, to offer longer school days and years is an important step forward in the Boston schools’ improvement agenda.  The identified high priorities for Superintendent Chang–increasing the rigor of instruction and giving teachers more time embedded within the school day to collaborate with peers and learn new teaching approaches– benefit greatly from a longer school day and year.  As I wrote about last week, Boston’s Jackson/Mann is already doing exciting things with more time, including opening up opportunities for a broader array of enrichment and learning experiences during the school day at the West End Boys and Girls Club. 

We need to see more schools like Orchard Gardens and Jackson/Mann across the district, and a more progressive Collective Bargaining Agreement will help the district and the union move in the right direction.  School districts across the country are embracing flexibilities that enable schools to create new schedules that better meet the needs of students, teachers and families.  Even with all of Boston Public Schools’ successes over the years, it still is challenged by significant achievement and opportunity gaps that an expanded school schedule can help address. The relevance of a 180 6.5-hour per day schedule—which was designed for a farm and factory era when moms were home in the afternoon—is long gone.  Unfortunately, public policies, including education policy, have not kept up with what is by now a fully different model—one in which many women work outside the home, and in which many of those women are solo parents.  It just doesn’t make sense that many students in Boston are still released from school by 1:40 p.m.

One thing is certain: with federal and state funding stagnating, only by addressing the district’s structural budget problems will BPS be able to invest more in the teachers, school leaders, and school partners who together with families can create new school designs that fully address the needs of kids, families, and teachers in the 21st century.