As soon as next fall, local high school students may be able to sleep a bit later each morning.
The Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District is in the process of reviewing its bell schedule, in part to comply with a new state law requiring that high schools start no earlier than 8:30 a.m. First period at Mountain View and Los Altos high school currently starts at 8:10 a.m. most days.
Administrators, teachers, staff, parents and students all have been involved in discussions over pushing back start times, as well as potential other changes to the bell schedule.
The statewide start-time requirement will take effect in the 2022-2023 school year. However, district administrators were already looking at changing the bell schedule before Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill last month.
The goal is to implement a new bell schedule next school year, but that isn’t yet a certainty, Superintendent Nellie Meyer and MVLA Board of Trustees President Phil Faillace both said.
“The negotiation has turned out to be pretty intricate, because there are a variety of considerations that people are making,” Faillace said.
The district commissioned a study by Hanover Research on the bell schedule and start times that was presented at an Oct. 21 board meeting. The study included an examination of research on school start times, a review of various high school bell scheduling models and a survey of students, parents and school staff on the current bell schedule.
Ultimately, Hanover’s recommendations included delaying start times until at least 8:30 a.m. and considering shifting to a bell schedule with four block-period days. Currently Mountain View and Los Altos highs have two block-period days, which means having periods that are around double the length but only meet on one of the two days.
The district also includes Alta Vista High School, an alternative school where first period already starts at 9 a.m. each weekday. According to Meyer, that schedule has been working for Alta Vista and there is no plan to change it.
Altering the start time at the two traditional high schools has the potential to have wide-ranging effects, and the district is working to balance competing interests.
“It’s a simple decision that Governor Newsom made, but it has a big ripple effect,” said Marilyn Stanley, Mountain View High School PTSA executive vice president.
The California Department of Education has requirements for the number of instructional minutes high schools must provide each year. For Mountain View and Los Altos, the state minimum is 64,800 minutes per year. If start times are pushed later, those minutes will have to be made up somewhere else.
“The 20-odd minutes that they would have to add to the schedule, either it’s going to make the day longer or it’s going to make the year longer,” said Nikki Selden, Los Altos High School PTSA president.
If school lets out later in the afternoon, that could mean longer commutes for teachers, a majority of whom live at least 30 minutes from campus, teachers’ union president David Campbell said. Currently, school typically ends at 3:30 p.m.
“Commute times will be drastically impacted if the release time were to be put past 3:45,” Campbell said.
Jay Santiago, president of the classified employees’ union, agreed that it would impact staff who live far away. Classified employees include clerical staff, instructional assistants and custodians. He added that any schedule change will affect part-time staff, who often work second jobs or are needed at home.
Pushing the end time out also could be a problem for students who work after school, Campbell said. Although it is a “sad reality,” he noted that some students work to help support their families.
If school ends later, it also could impact sports teams and extracurricular activities. Currently, neither high school has stadium lights on its football field, making evening practices difficult. After years of negotiations with those living in the neighborhoods near the high schools, the district is in the process of installing stadium lights. Meyer said she is hopeful they will be ready next school year.
Pushing the end of the school day later could mean students stay up later participating in extracurricular activities and doing homework, according to Selden.
“I appreciate the thought behind this,” she said. “Definitely kids need to sleep longer. I’m not entirely sure it’s the bell schedule that needs to change – maybe the homework load.”
Campbell said he supports moving start times later and that the district has been working on the issue for years, but he has come to the conclusion it will mean adding a few more days to the school year.
The schools currently start in August and end in June, which can already feel long, Selden said. She noted that if school ended later each day, it could be hard on teachers.
“The longer they have to stay at school, the harder it is for them to get home,” Selden said. “But then again for students, a longer year is a longer year.”
Another factor under consideration is how the high schools’ start time will affect nearby districts. If the start times line up, it can be challenging for families who need to drop off kids at schools in multiple districts. And if the high schools expand their school year, that can be hard on families who rely on an older child to help babysit their younger siblings, Campbell said. Currently, the Los Altos School District generally starts at 8:30 a.m.
Campbell said he has been consulting with the unions from surrounding districts and cares about the effect the high school district could have on them.
One possibility is starting later than 8:30 a.m. Faillace said he sees “an opportunity here to do better” than what the state law requires. Mountain View High senior Jackson Harnett, a student trustee on the MVLA board, said 8:45 a.m. would be his preference and that students are generally in favor of ensuring start times are consistent across days.
Beyond start times
The district also is considering changing other aspects of the bell schedule, beyond when school starts. One option is moving to a model with four block days, as the Hanover report suggested.
“That has not been finalized, but that is the one that when we’ve met has had the most consensus,” Meyer said.
Block days require different instructional techniques than a traditional schedule to ensure students stay focused and retain information. If the district moved to adding more block days, Meyer said there would be professional development for teachers on how to use the extended time effectively.
Some subjects, such as science classes with labs, often benefit from block schedules, Meyer said. Math and language teachers, on the other hand, often want to meet daily to help students better retain information.
The conversation around block scheduling has raised questions about how it could impact the homework load. If students are not seeing all of their teachers daily, there is the potential that less homework could be assigned. However, Meyer said that isn’t a certainty and would depend on how the system is set up.
According to Harnett, students have mixed views on block periods, but he thinks more lean toward supporting them.
“I personally like the idea of block days,” he said. “But I’ve definitely talked to a lot of students that like to have that traditional schedule.”
Another option is to add more tutorial or advisory periods, where students can meet with teachers or get schoolwork done. Currently the high schools have one approximately half-hour tutorial period per week.
Oliver Yu, the MVLA student trustee from Los Altos High, said students generally want more tutorial periods, and he personally would support adding a second one.
“That’s a really good time for students to get personalized attention from any teachers or get ahead on their academics,” he said. “The flexibility is really helpful for students.”
The scheduling discussion has prompted discussion on whether to eliminate zero period. Only some students currently have zero periods, which start at approximately 7:15 a.m.
“The legislation … says that you can still have it, but that defeats the purpose,” Meyer said. “If we’re really doing this for the right reason, instead of compliance, we need to look at zero period closely and see if we still want to have that continue.”
As the district continues to review bell schedule models, there is also the possibility that the shifts could be implemented over multiple years rather than all at once. However, Meyer noted that there is currently momentum to make changes.
“You’re not going to please everyone,” she said. “But we’re hoping to continue to focus on what makes sense for students.”