Parents question Houston schools survey on class start times

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Some parents say an online survey on whether the Houston school district should make morning class-start times more uniform is a sham.

Critics say the proposal itself will cause problems for single parents, families with kids who attend different schools and households in which both parents work.

One problem with the survey is that “it assumes this is the only way to save money,” said Ruth Kravetz, 49, a Houston school parent who also teaches at Jefferson Davis High School. “It did not provide opportunities for parents to provide opinions on alternative ways to save money.”

Ashley Villalon, 26, a standardized-test tutor for the Houston Independent School District, agreed.

“They could have encouraged people to look at other school districts to see what has worked there,” Villalon said. “If I had designed the survey, I would have specifically said, ‘The school district is in a bind. This is a proposal to help get us out of the deficit. However, here are a few websites with pros and cons of this proposal’ – instead of just marginalizing the cons to the benefits.”

District officials unveiled the plan last month as way to save about $1.2 million during the next academic year. The Houston school board is examining a variety of options to eliminate a $34.7 million budget deficit in the 2012-13 academic year.



A similar proposal last year proved so controversial that it failed. This year’s idea proposes that high school students start an hour later than last year’s version.



The revised schedules would allow bus schedules to become more efficient by enabling drivers to travel more routes than they currently do, Leo Bobadilla, the district’s chief operating officer told school board members during a meeting last month.


HISD schools currently have about 20 different start and end times, Spencer said in a statement last month. Under the proposed schedule, schools “would have an instructional day that is seven and a half hours long,” Spencer said last month. That would equal seven more school days a year, he said.

District administrators plan to make a formal proposal to the school board by May 17.

Reached this morning by email and cell phone, Spencer declined to answer additional questions about the survey, including what date HISD officials plan to make public the results of the online survey that is scheduled to be live through April 13 and whether HISD officials will make public the responses to the one open-answered question on the survey:

“Please tell us what you would change in the proposed plan in order to be more comfortable with the proposal.”

Kravetz also said the survey’s designers could have added valid open-ended questions such as: If this is a plan you don’t like, what is another alternative? And, do you think there would be any negative consequences to have different start times for elementary schools?

“They should have had a variety,” Kravetz said.

Due to that lack of other options, Anne Stovall, 41, whose daughter attends an HISD elementary school, said, “It’s like they’re already going to do (the proposed new schedule) and then they’re asking me how I feel about it.”

Stovall said she interpreted the survey as the district saying to her, “This is what we’re going to do. How do you feel about it?”

Two ways that, combined, would save the district almost the same amount of money as the proposal would be to cut the salaries by 10 percent of wage earners who made more than $120,000 a year (about $900,000) and slashing $100,000 for district-administrator training, Kravetz said.

“Neither of those would disrupt school schedules,” she said.

Kravetz and others were put out that district administrators chose to present a single plan without giving parents the chance to suggest other possibilities.

“Instead of seeking my input first, the district is saying, ‘here’s our idea and here’s our survey that’s based on one scheduling option; tell us your thoughts,’” said Kravetz, 49, a mother of two children who attend HISD elementary and high schools. “We, as parents, are afterthoughts.”

Villalon said the survey was biased because “right before it begins, it gives the quote-unquote fact that scientific research shows teens learn better when they’re able to sleep in later; no source is cited,” said Villalon, who graduated from HISD elementary, middle and high schools and is a mother of a 3-year-old. “A large number of parents and students won’t do the research, and lots will just believe what they read and hear.”

But the data exist. A 2010 University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign study of all middle school students in Wake County, N.C. from 1999 to 2006 concluded that “starting school one hour later leads to a three percentile point gain in both math and reading test scores.”

Kravetz and Villalon also said it would have been helpful if HISD officials began the feedback process earlier.

“I would’ve provided more than one school year to make this type of change,” Villalon said.

With no other options presented to parents, people like Villalon’s sister, a mother of three children who each attend a different elementary, middle and high school, would face “an extreme change.”

“It’s not practical for parents when you know that your kid is going to be waiting in the streets for the bus, or walk to school, because the mother and father have to go to work,” Villalon said. “I’d be interested in hearing from students currently taking the bus and find out what they think about being dropped off earlier at the bus stop. I think it’s important we see how it would affect them instead of just the school district.”

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Contact Mike Cronin at mike@texaswatchdog.org or 713-228-2850. Follow him on Twitter at@michaelccronin or @texaswatchdog.

Photo by flickr user robstephaustraila, used under a Creative Commons license. 

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