As a new school year begins, bold moves are putting students at the center

These 3 initiatives point the way toward a learner-centered future

Decade after decade, alarm clocks pierced the predawn silence in the bedrooms of Hampton Township’s sleep-deprived teenagers. No matter how late they’d gotten to bed the night before, by 7 a.m. on weekday mornings most were outside climbing aboard school buses.

Those bus-riding kids, at least, had a shot at grabbing an extra five minutes of sleep on the way to school. Many of the juniors and seniors with cars and newly earned drivers’ licenses were busy driving up and down the roller-coaster hills that lead to Hampton High School’s entrance—some on just four or five hours’ sleep.

No one thought this was ideal. There must be a better way to begin a full day of learning. But a century of high schoolers throughout America have started their mornings this early. It seemed like an unavoidable reality.

Until it didn’t.

Making the Leap

Just a few weeks ago, as the new school year approached, Hampton’s leadership announced a dramatic change: High school would now begin at 8:20 a.m., nearly an hour later than the traditional 7:30 start time.

This decision to change the high school start time was grounded in two things: solid research into the science of teenagers’ sleep patterns and physiology, and plenty of communication with the community. Yet even after three years of exploration and discussion, the act of making it happen for this school year was in many ways a bold choice.

Changing bus schedules for high schoolers impacts busing for all the other schools in the district. The shift also puts Hampton out of sync with neighboring districts, upending afterschool sports schedules. And coordination with AW Beattie Career Center in McCandless, where many high schoolers spend part of their day, was suddenly complicated because Beattie’s schedule isn’t changing.

Perhaps most challenging of all, parents throughout the district—many of whom attended Hampton themselves on the old schedule and were wholly accustomed to it—would have to accept all this.

“We knew this would be a major change,” says Hampton superintendent Dr. Michael Loughead. But after 18 months of pandemic disruption and challenge, he says, “this is a time for bold moves.”

That sentiment echoes the message of the “Remaking Tomorrow: What Comes Next?” report, published in June of this year: We can’t go back to any “normal” that wasn’t truly serving all students. And districts can’t let the momentum of recent months fade without true progress.

Girl at classroom desk
Released earlier this year, Remaking Tomorrow: What Comes Next presents a series of recommendations to maintain pandemic-era progress in education and drive more bold moves.

Dr. Katie Martin, author of “Evolving Education: Shifting to a Learner-Centered Paradigm” and a consultant who works with school districts throughout the U.S., says some schools are struggling to put groundbreaking ideas into action. More than 18 months of disruption has left them craving pre-pandemic normalcy, even if it was substandard.

But many others, she says, are starting “to really push the edges” by prioritizing social-emotional learning and focusing on meeting learners’ needs in new ways.

Building a Learner-Centered World

Martin is currently working with Butler Area School District, about an hour north of Pittsburgh. Dr. Brian White, Butler’s superintendent, says the district is collaborating with its local community more closely than ever. Over the summer, White sent a letter to local businesses and government agencies inviting them to a series of four work sessions during this school year.

The goal? To involve the entire community in mapping out the future of learning in Butler.

Some of the questions being asked, Martin says: “What are the new outcomes that we really want for our kids? Are we really just anchored on standardized test scores, and older metrics, or are we starting to think differently about the data that we have and what we really want for our students?”

Hearing people discuss those questions, she says, “has been really exciting.”

In Butler and many other communities in the Pittsburgh region and beyond, “people are starting to see that we need to orient towards more whole-child, learner-centered outcomes,” Martin says. And they’re willing to experiment with new approaches to make that happen.

Bold moves, of course, can be intimidating. They can sometimes fail. But making the leap can pay huge dividends, says James Fogarty, executive director of A+ Schools.

In recent weeks, A+ Schools and other members of the Pittsburgh Learning Collaborative (PLC) have helped Pittsburgh Public Schools (PPS) design a last-minute but creative solution to the challenges caused by the nationwide bus driver shortage.

Faced with a major shortfall of drivers, PPS had expanded the “walk zones” around many of their schools and shifted some older students from riding yellow school buses to riding public Port Authority buses. Many students are facing unfamiliar routes to school, which can be confusing and stressful.

So the PLC and PPS collaborated to build a new, untested solution: For the first six weeks of school, teams of “navigation ambassadors” will be stationed at intersections around the city to help kids walk to school safely or board the correct bus. Beyond keeping kids from getting lost, these adults can hopefully help kids feel more comfortable with their new routines.

The project — funded by the school district and administered by A+ Schools — is an example of moving beyond the silos that have kept community organizations and K-12 schools separated for generations.

Will it work perfectly? “Honestly, we’ve never done this before,” Fogarty says.  The organizers are still hiring ambassadors even though school has begun. But they will be checking in with participants and making improvements as they go.

Hampton High School made the same type of carefully considered but ultimately untested leap. Having made the switch to a later start time, will their district see the same results that other districts around the country have found—better academic outcomes and fewer sports injuries and student car accidents?

There are no guarantees. But this may be a substantive step forward in supporting students’ physical and mental health at a time when they need it most—the often angst-ridden middle of a pandemic.

Shifting to a later start time “has been shown to help reduce some of the mental health challenges—the anxiety and depression—that are sometimes caused by sleep deprivation,” Loughead says.

So while the move brought a host of logistical challenges and pushed Hampton to adjust to a big change, this year—the ideal year to think innovatively and passionately about what students need from their schools and communities—was the moment to try.

“This opportunity,” Loughead says, “couldn’t come at a better time.”