Later high school start times could mean less bus service in Denver

February 11, 2022

To delay middle and high school start times to give teenagers more sleep, the Denver District could cut — potentially dramatically — yellow bus service throughout the district.

The most extreme scenario, which Denver Public Schools dubbed Option C, would standardize bell hours so that all high schools would start at 8:50 a.m. All elementary schools would start at 7:50 a.m.

But that scenario would reduce service at 106 of Denver’s 206 schools. Bus drivers cannot be in two places at the same time, so standardizing departure times limits the number of routes they can operate.

Under option C, each bus driver could only run two routes each morning instead of the current three. Bus service would be preserved in district-run schools where 90% or more of students come from low-income families. (See the list in the document at the end of this story.)

Another scenario, Option B, would have less standardized class times and eliminate transportation to just 20 schools, including district-run schools serving more affluent families, magnet schools, and independent charter schools that purchase the district bus service.

A third scenario, Option A, would keep all current bus routes and similar bell times, but have more elementary schools starting at 7:30 a.m. and high schools closing at 4:40 p.m. Complaints last year that the 7:30 a.m. start time is too early and the 4:40 p.m. exit time means students can walk home in the dark.

District officials stressed that the three scenarios are only proposals. The district will collect feedback for another month and aim to make a final decision by June. The late return to middle and high schools, approved by the school board last May, should begin in the fall of 2023.

“There are going to be some really tough choices no matter where we land,” said Amber Elias, district chief superintendent of operations. “Making a change of this magnitude in such a large system is going to hurt. There are going to be balancing acts that we have to do.”

The school board’s “healthy start times” resolution calls for all middle and high schools to start at 8:20 a.m. or later. It was championed by board member Scott Baldermann based on research that shows later school start times lead to increased attendance and higher graduation rates.

The fact that later departure times could lead to significant reductions in bus service was not considered as a possibility when the council voted unanimously for the resolution. At the time, the district was grappling with another bus change: standardizing bell times so that most schools now start in three time slots – 7:30 a.m. to 7:40 a.m., 8:05 a.m. to 8:25 a.m., and 8:50 a.m. to 9:10 a.m. This change was made to increase efficiency and avoid service cuts in the face of a shortage of bus drivers.

The shortage continues, both in Denver and nationally. Only 64% of bus driver positions in the district are filled, leaving about 100 drivers short, according to a district presentation. That makes switching to later start times for middle and high schools even trickier, said Dustin Kress, chief of staff for the district’s operations division.

Most Denver high school students are not eligible for yellow bus service. Instead, the district provides passes to ride Regional Transportation District public buses to and from the school.

But the district should still provide yellow bus service to high school students with disabilities, recent refugees who attend district “newcomer centers” and Spanish-speaking high school students learning English in the district’s bilingual programs, Kress said.

This requires drivers and limits the flexibility of the neighborhood. Transportation for these students would continue even if the district cut other routes.

For other students, including those in citywide magnetic programs that now have bus service, Kress said the district may consider other options to help students get to school. school. That could include handing out more passes for regional transportation district buses, setting up car pools, or providing schools with small buses that school staff could drive, he said.

The district does not plan to close any magnet schools under this proposal, Kress and Elias said. Denver has a small number of magnetic programs focusing on the arts, highly gifted and talented education, the Montessori method, international studies, and more.

At a meeting Wednesday to gather feedback on the scenarios, one attendee asked why the magnet programs were being targeted for cuts, Elias said. The response district officials gave left some loving families and school principals worried that their schools were on the chopping block. The district was quick to assure them that was not the case.

“We know the impacts are real and the fears are real,” Elias said. “We try to do this in a way that keeps the impacts and the possibilities as transparent as possible.”

This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here.

Melvin Z. Madore