Boston Public Schools (BPS) released the school day start- and end-times for the district’s 125 schools for the 2018-19 school year, significantly increasing the number of middle and high school students who will begin their school days at or after 8:00 AM.

“School bell times have tangible impacts on the lives of families, ranging from jobs to a student’s academic performance,” says BPS Superintendent Tommy Chang, in a statement. “As a district, we must make sure that our students and families are set up for success, and they deserve nothing less. I am confident that next year’s school bell schedule will be an improvement for the majority of families, and is reflective of the feedback we have received from thousands of students, parents, and staff.”

Of the district’s 125 schools, 105 will have new bell times next year.

The later secondary school start times come after a body of research shows teenagers have better academic outcomes when their school days begin later in the morning. Under the new scheduling plan, more than 94% of secondary students will begin their days at or after 8:00 AM, compared to 27% of secondary students who do so currently.

The new times are the result of nationally-leading optimization work conducted with the MIT Operations Research Center, 18 months of community feedback from 10,000 students, family members, and staff, and input from the Boston School Committee, which on Wednesday voted unanimously in favor of a start- and end-time policy that sets best practices for school scheduling district-wide.

Because the school bus system is highly interconnected, it is nearly impossible to alter any one school’s schedule without a system-wide change.

Judith Owens, MD, MPH, the director of sleep medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, applauded BPS for establishing start times that facilitate better sleep patterns for secondary school students.

“In moving middle- and high-school start times later, Boston Public Schools is taking a critical step to ensuring an academic environment that promotes health, safety, well-being and learning in adolescents,” Owens says. “The BPS community and leadership are to be commended for recognizing the substantial body of scientific evidence that demonstrates the importance of sleep patterns that are in sync with teenagers’ biological needs. Later school start times promote healthy sleep, which not only helps students perform better academically, but decreases the risk of car crashes, depression, and alcohol and substance abuse. We all win.”

The new school schedules are reflective of the priorities that are now formalized in the new district policy, which are:

  • To increase the number of middle and high schools that begin after 8:00 AM;
  • Where possible, increase the number of elementary schools dismissing before 4:00 PM;
  • Where possible, assign schools with higher concentrations of medically fragile students or students with autism or emotional impairments to bell times reflective of the needs of their student body;
  • Where possible, maximize reinvestment in schools;
  • And, work with out-of-school partners to ensure a range of before- and after-school programming options for students who experience schedule changes.

In addition to the priorities outlined in the policy, the district accounted for several unique factors, such as:

  • Traffic patterns throughout the city at various times throughout the day.
  • Schools sharing the same building do not start or end at the same time.
  • Secondary schools close to each other will have different dismissal times so as not to overcrowd MBTA stations or streets.
  • Equity considerations, including, for example, the ability for families in different neighborhoods to have multiple school start-time choices.

Over the past three years, 57 BPS elementary schools extended the length of their school days, resulting in dismissal times of 4:10 PM in 27 schools this year, which some families feel is too late for them.

The percentage of elementary school students being dismissed after 4:00 PM will decrease from 33% currently to 15% next year. While collecting community feedback, a sizeable number of parents indicated their desire to keep later start times for their elementary school students and, therefore, would appreciate this element of choice.

The new system-wide scheduling plan eliminates a three-tier system in which most schools began at 7:30 AM, 8:30 AM, or 9:30 AM, and replaces it with a 10-tier system in which schools begin every 15 minutes between 7:15 AM and 9:30 AM.

“The district should be commended for taking an innovative approach to providing solutions to a decades-old problem,” says Boston School Committee chairperson Michael O’Neill. “The adoption of this policy allows the district to implement system-wide solutions to provide the best possible scheduling outcomes for our students, families, and staff. While the majority of families should see scheduling improvements, it is critical that the district also support those schools, families, employees, and partners who may be subject to challenges due to a new bell time.”

BPS chief of operations John Hanlon says the voices of students, parents, and staff have been invaluable during the scheduling process.

“We heard loud and clear from parents, students, and staff that bell times need to better reflect the sleep patterns of teenagers and provide earlier dismissal options for our youngest students,” Hanlon says. “Getting input from thousands of students, families, and staff members, as well as the optimization experts from MIT, has been vitally important to our work of creating a comprehensive, district-wide solution.”

The optimization team from MIT’s Operations Research Center, led by professor Dimitris Bertsimas, worked with BPS to formulate the best possible scheduling options by taking into account community feedback along with the astonishing 1.8 octodecillion possible school start time combinations.

The MIT solution can design BPS bus routes based on school start-times more quickly than BPS staff can manually. It has historically taken about 3,000 hours to manually design routes, whereas MIT’s solution can produce a robust estimate in 30 minutes and allows the district to look at a much broader range of scenarios.

Deb Putnam, the parent of a Boston Latin Academy student who is also the Boston chapter leader of Start School Later, Inc., said she appreciates the district’s thoughtful approach to scheduling.

“I’m heartened and pleased that the school department looked at research and dove deep to find solutions in a way that values the health and wellbeing of students,” Putnam says. “BPS has put in much forethought and bold thinking on the issues of start times and transportation. I’m excited about the plan, and that there will be an evaluation of its impact in the near future.”