Status quo

Call for later high school start times falls flat in Denver Public Schools

Last fall, a top Denver Public Schools administrator sent an email to 10 secondary principals asking that high schools and sixth-12th grade campuses push their start times later this year—to 8 a.m.

It would have meant changes at many of the city’s secondary schools, most of which start between 7:15 and 7:45 a.m.

But most students and parents shouldn’t expect to see any schedule shifts this fall. Only one of the schools that received the email—Denver Center for International Studies-Baker—changed its start time, moving from 7:25 to 7:55 a.m.

A handful of Denver high schools, including the new Northfield High, Manual High and DSST charter high schools, also have start times of 8 a.m. or later this year, but such schedules were either already in place or planned prior to the email request.

While district administrators say there was never any mandate to push back start times at other schools, the email appears to be more than a casual suggestion.

Fred McDowell, the district’s former instructional superintendent for high schools, wrote in the email, “The data indicates a direct correlation to student levels of alertness and engagement. Therefore we are asking all high schools and 6-12 campuses to institute a start time of 8am beginning in the 2015-16 school year.”

Towards the end of the email, he wrote, “There will be ongoing discussion in order to work out the logistics and support needed to operationalize this across DPS (Food Services, Transportation, Athletics, After school Activities, and etc).”

The email went to principals at most of the district’s traditional high schools on Nov. 14. (See the full email at the end of this story.)

Nine months later, it appears miscommunication between top administrators and logistical obstacles stymied the late start proposal. McDowell resigned at the end of the school year and took a job in the School District of Philadelphia. He could not be reached for comment.

Greta Martinez, assistant superintendent for post-secondary readiness and McDowell’s supervisor, said the email miscommunicated the district’s intention, which was to launch conversations about later start times, not change to them this year.

Asked why McDowell sent the message, she said, “Fred’s not here so I can’t ask him. It’s all in interpretation. I can’t guess what he was intending with his message.”

Why are later start times better for teens?
  • Sleep-wake cycles shift during puberty, making it hard for kids to fall asleep as early as they did in elementary school.
  • Experts say it’s normal for teens to stay awake till 11 p.m.
  • It’s recommended that teens get 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night.
  • Research shows that students with early bell times get less sleep than they should, which is tied to lower achievement and higher rates of obesity, depression and car accidents.

Suzanne Morris-Sherer, principal of Thomas Jefferson High School, said she believes later start times are a great idea but aren’t currently feasible because of transportation constraints and sports schedules.

When she received McDowell’s email last fall, she forwarded it to her staff and asked for feedback to provide to central administrators. About a half-dozen staff members responded, most concerned about the issues she cited.

Morris-Sherer said she didn’t recall any follow-up from central administrators afterwards.

The debate about later start times in DPS and elsewhere is nothing new. But with recent calls for change from national health experts and some of DPS’s own leaders, the inertia is striking. It’s possible these kind of proposals may hold even less sway moving forward given the district’s embrace of decentralized decision-making, which gives principals’ significant autonomy for making building-level decisions.

Scott Mendelsberg, McDowell’s replacement, addressed the issue of decentralization, saying, “It wasn’t really about, ‘We don’t have to do what they’re asking.’ I think principals thought it would be an okay idea, but really did worry about the logistics of this.”

“It’s a little surprising that more didn’t go to this model, but I don’t think it’s a dead issue.”

Martinez agreed, saying there will be further conversations about moving start times with even more schools involved than the 10 targeted by McDowell’s email.

“I think we just needed a little better messaging about what this means and what this looks like,” said Mendelsberg.

The early side of late

While the 8 a.m start time McDowell requested last fall would have moved district high schools in the right direction according to research, it wouldn’t have gone as far as experts recommend.

A policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics last fall recommended start times of 8:30 a.m. for middle and high schools. And in 2002, the Colorado PTA passed a resolution urging state and federal legislation for 9 a.m. secondary start times.

Cindy Daisley, the group’s president and the mother of two North High School graduates, said even 13 years later, it’s still a big issue.

“I would love to see something happen districtwide, even statewide, because I think it’s important for our teenagers to perform better,” she said.

When her twin boys were in high school, she said, “getting them out of bed in the morning was so painful for all of us because they just required that much sleep.”

There’s science to back up her experience. It indicates that teens need 8.5-9.5 hours of sleep a night and are hardwired to favor later bedtimes.

The American Academy of Pediatrics’ policy statement on start times noted that teens who get enough sleep are at reduced risk of being overweight or suffering depression, are less likely to be involved in car accidents, and have better grades and higher standardized test scores.

Generally speaking, no one disputes the research on teen sleep habits and later school start times. The sticking point is putting it into practice.

Navigating logistics

So what makes it so hard to change high school start and end times?

One of the biggest issues is the transportation jigsaw puzzle. Because middle and elementary school bus routes usually follow early-morning and early-afternoon high school routes, changes to the high school schedule can impact schools all down the line.

Even in DPS, where few high schoolers use district buses, transportation still matters. In part, it’s because special education students do rely on yellow buses to get to high school, so moving their start times could mean fewer district buses available to transport younger children.

Morris-Sherer said even with the current 2:50 p.m. dismissal at Thomas Jefferson, her special education students often have to leave their last class early to make it to the school bus in time. She worried that with a later dismissal time, they’d miss even more of their last class.

“It would just impact my instructional day,” she said.

Later start and end times could also cause transportation woes for general education students. For example, city buses currently make stops on Thomas Jefferson’s campus twice after school lets out. If the dismissal time were delayed, Morris-Sherrer said those students could miss the two on-campus buses and be forced to walk across the bridge over Interstate 25 for a later and more inconvenient off-campus pick-up.

Scott Mendelsberg said such issues, which might involve negotiating different on-campus pick-up times with the city bus system, must be addressed at the district level, not left up to schools to handle.

“There are solutions to…some of these concerns,” he said.

The other major challenge in changing start and end times revolves around after-school obligations including school sports, after-school jobs or family responsibilities like caring for younger siblings.

At the 2,500-student East High School, student athletes sometimes miss half of their last class to get to games on time even with the current 7:30 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. schedule. Principal Andy Mendelsberg, who is Scott Mendelsberg’s brother, said a later dismissal would mean an even bigger dent in class time.

At Northfield High, where the school day runs from 8:45 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Principal Avi Tropper said most games will be scheduled for 6 p.m. on weeknights or on Saturdays. For sports like cross-country, in which multi-school meets are often scheduled around 2 p.m., students may have to leave early, he said.

Andy Mendelsberg said with East fielding four teams in almost every sport and limited daylight in late fall, it would be impossible to eliminate weekday afternoon games.

“There’s no way for us to work around that…We can’t play everybody on Friday and Saturday and get through the season.”

The schools that make it work

While late high school start times are hardly the norm in Denver or Colorado as a whole, they do have a small presence.

Manual’s 8:10 a.m. start time has been in place for years, said secretary Carol Grant, who’s worked at three high schools during her 20-year career in DPS.

She believes the later start makes it easier for students to get to school on time and that they’re more awake once there.

When she worked at West High School, she said, “I’d write a thousand passes in the morning” for the long line of kids arriving late.

But Thomas Jefferson Principal Morris-Sherer said the school’s 7:30 a.m. start time is not a problem for most kids.

“I don’t have kids falling asleep habitually in class,” she said. “It is what it is. You just adjust your life.”

Andy Mendelsberg said East allowed students to opt for an 8:20 a.m. start several years ago as part of an experiment that added a ninth period to the school day. Only 31 students took advantage of the option.

At the four high school locations of the Denver School for Science and Technology, or DSST, start times range from 7:55 a.m to 8:15 a.m.

The later-than-average start times were intentional, said Andrew Mendrop, manager of communications and development for the charter school network.

The physiology of teenagers was a key consideration, but there were competing priorities, he said. Network leaders didn’t want to push start times back so much that it would inconvenience parents dropping their children off before work or students with after-school activities or jobs.

Last year, the Harrison School District near Colorado Springs pushed back start times at all 20 of its schools after a committee studied the issue for two years. High schools now start at 7:45 a.m. instead of 7:20 a.m, and elementary and middle schools now start at 8:35 a.m. instead of 8:10 a.m. (On Mondays only, middle schools start at 10:05 a.m. and high schools start at 9:15 a.m.)

Northfield has the latest start time among comprehensive high schools in Denver, but at least one Colorado district has even later starts.

Middle-schoolers in the Cortez-Montezuma district start their day at 8:50 a.m. and high-schoolers at 9 a.m.

Some Denver students may dream about reporting to school so late, but for now they’ll have to keep setting their alarms.

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call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”