A Tale of Two Back to School Nights

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Excitement and enthusiasm were in the air as teachers in my new high school in a middle class neighborhood prepared their classrooms by decorating their bulletin boards, displaying student work, and straightening desks. Welcome messages abounded, Remind.com messages were sent, and we opened our doors to meet the parents.
I have done these events for 24 years, four times a year at my former school in South Central L.A. But this year’s Back to School Night left me reflecting, and perhaps shedding a tear.
First, my new parents were fantastic. They were friendly, enthusiastic, and supportive of the new ideas I bring to the school. I knew in them I would have allies to incorporate my findings from my Fulbright exchange in Finland earlier this year. Parent after parent nodded their heads and strongly affirmed that break time was important to students, teachers, and workers in general. They were excited to hear about the summer travel programs I had prepared.
As I looked at their warm and s…

A Case of Parent vs. Student Intersts

 L.A. Academy is rapidly approaching the end of its year-round calendar era.  For 12 years, our overcrowded school has operated on a three-track system, with two tracks of students on at any given time, and one on vacation.  Thanks to a massive school-building effort, all LAUSD schools will be placed on a traditional school calendar, with 180 days of instruction, like the majority of the district.

Recently there was a meeting of stakeholders, the Shared Decision Making Council, to get feedback on next year's bell schedule, with the issue of school start time as the main topic.  Two bell schedules were proposed:  one with school starting at 7:30 am, another with an 8:00 am start.

All the educational research shows that later school start times are much more productive for students due to teenage sleep cycles, circadian rhythms, etc., and our current 7:30 am start is particularly brutal for our middle school students.  Even if teachers had not read the research, classroom experience shows us that students are markedly less alert at this time than after 9:00 am, or after lunch.

In an era of education reform, teachers are often accused of putting adult interests first.  For many teachers, an earlier start time means an earlier quitting time and less traffic to battle on the way home.  Yet many are willing to set aside this personal convenience because they recognize the benefit to students.  (It is unclear whether the district will allow stakeholders to decide start times, but in case we are, allowed the feedback process has begun.)

So imagine our surprise when parents were adamant about their preferences for an earlier start time citing child care, work schedules, and school-drop off schedules for their other children as their reasons.  In other words, adult-centered reasons.  Attempts were made to convey the results of the research, but even after two hours, many still stuck to their guns.

A democratic process in schools is an important and pivotal part of their vitality.  But with democracy comes the responsibility to do what is better for the whole, not just for the few.  Our predominantly working class families are right to express concern about work schedules.  Many are hanging on to their jobs by a thread.  Yet given the opportunity, some are willing to sacrifice 30 daily minutes of alert time (multiplied by 180 days= 90 hours of instruction) in order to have a more convenient schedule for themselves.

This is a tough one for me.  I believe in parent empowerment, and parent education.  But with the swift rate of change being imposed on schools like ours, we do not have the massive amount of time needed to meet with all parents, explain the research carefully in two languages, and check for thorough understanding.

What should our Shared Decision Making Council do about this situation?  I welcome any feedback.

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