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Another chance on CMS bell schedules

The Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bell schedule is understandably not one of Heath Morrison’s favorite topics. As superintendents before him well know, some parents don’t like their children heading to the bus stop too early, while others don’t want their children arriving home too late. No matter what Morrison and CMS decide, people are going to be unhappy.

But a consultant’s report on CMS transportation brought good news this week to both Morrison and parents who’ve complained about later dismissals and longer elementary school days.

The report, from the Council of the Great City Schools, found that CMS made financially and logistically sound decisions when it changed its bell schedules in 2011 to save money during difficult economic times. But the report also said that CMS made some errors in getting community input both before and after those changes, so Morrison is wisely moving to create a new community task force and gather public opinion on the topic.

It’s a chance for a fresh conversation on how the school can best serve both its students and its bottom line. But for that conversation to be productive, its participants need to acknowledge at least two realities:

First, CMS already offers uncommonly thorough transportation service. Unlike many large districts, CMS picks up and drops off magnet school students, and mandatory walk zones for schools are comparatively small. Those conveniences cost money, as would future changes to the bell schedule. “You either have to cut back on some of that or find different ways to do that,” Morrison told the editorial board Wednesday.

That also means new proposals should be accompanied with real academic benefits. An example: Research shows that early high school start times interfere with the circadian rhythms of adolescent students, resulting in them not getting the rest they need to succeed. To that end, a growing number of school districts across the country have moved back high school schedules to allow students to take classes while at their most alert levels.

That’s harder for larger districts with more moving parts, such as CMS, but it can be done. In August, the Fairfax County (Va.) School District, about 40,000 students larger than CMS, partnered with the Children’s National Medical Center’s Division of Sleep Medicine to develop a new schedule for the county’s high schools.

Morrison, who’s aware of the adolescent sleep research, told the editorial board that later high school start times are “one of the things we will look at.” He also told the Observer that he’s open to taking up to 15 minutes off elementary school days, which could offer young students slightly shorter days and give teachers slightly more planning time.

First, however, comes the new “School Time Task Force,” a mix of staff and community members that will hold meetings open to the public. That’s good, because parents should have a voice on issues such as bell schedules. But ultimately, CMS should weigh what’s best for students at school, not what’s convenient for their schedules at home.

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