Jenna Hilb was raised an Academy School District 20 student, and she hasn't forgotten the quality of her education. Despite living outside its boundaries today, her family made the choice to enroll their children in D-20 this school year.
Her daughters are thriving, she said.
But beginning with the 2023-2024 academic year, its start and end times will be changing, the district announced in January, blindsiding Hilb and putting her family's plans in jeopardy.
D-20 currently operates under a staggered schedule in which schools start and end at various times. The new schedule will standardize times under a three-tier system: all elementary schools will run 7:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., high schools will run 8:10 a.m.-3:15 p.m. and middle schools will run 8:50 a.m.-3:55 p.m. Challenger Middle School is the one exception, running 8:20 a.m.-3:25 p.m.
Those times make for a perfect storm of pickups and drop-offs for Hilb, whose kindergartner, eighth grader and sophomore will stretch her across each school level, leading to nearly three hours of commute time. The task seems impossible, she said, and could force her family’s hand in returning to its old district.
“I feel like I’m in one of those weird logic problems from the SAT. It’s like, all right, you’ve got three schools to get to and 40 minutes in between. In a perfect world, maybe you could make it work,” Hilb said. “The thought of having to yank them again is pretty traumatizing. They’re all panicking.”
The change follows two years of planning and research by the School Start and End Times Task Force, which included students, staff, health care experts, and parents and guardians who reviewed, analyzed and researched current schedules to determine the potential impact of changes.
District leaders outlined their reasoning at a Jan. 19 school board meeting, citing more sleep time for students as the primary motivation, and the alleviation of transportation issues as a secondary reason.
The 40-minute difference between start times is the minimum duration necessary for buses to run their routes, Chief Operating Officer Brett Smith said at the meeting. The new schedule will also streamline start times and decrease bus routes by 10%, thus freeing up buses for more field trips, activities and athletics that the understaffed transportation department sometimes has to cancel due to lack of drivers.
About one-third of D-20’s approximately 26,000 students ride the bus, according to district spokesperson Allison Cortez. A little more than half of district students are considered “choice students,” meaning they chose to attend a school outside of their default neighborhood school. Bus transportation is not an option for most choice students, though some satellite pickup locations exist.
School board members assured concerned parents that this was only the beginning of the discussion to come. The next step would be community outreach.
A final decision was made five days later.
“By Tuesday, there it was, and I’m like what the hell? What are you thinking? How are parents going to work? That’s impossible,” said Lindsey Jensen, a district parent of two who has led the campaign against the time changes. Jensen created a website and petition for the cause, which has amassed more than 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday. “None of that was brought up with anybody, and I think that’s the biggest thing that most people are mad about. We weren’t even given the opportunity to come up with another solution.”
Cortez said the district did not do a great job of communicating with the broader community in the time leading up to the decision, a misstep D-20 acknowledges. Given that the task force had been working on the recommendation for two years, those involved falsely assumed the effort was common knowledge.
“We’re smarter today than we were yesterday,” Cortez said. “It’s making the community feel like this was something done to them and not with them, and now what we’re trying to do is, how do we reach out to those folks and move forward together?”
District leaders have received roughly 150 emails about the decision, most of which have been critical, Cortez said. They are responding to every one to get a better understanding of where the “pain points” are and how to address them. Discussions are being had about free breakfast next year and assisting staff members whose children will now have conflicting school times, among other issues.
“While we’ve made this announcement, we’re still processing through the concerns coming from parents. I would love them to know that they’re not falling on deaf ears,” Cortez said.
Chief among parents’ concerns is the stated mission of addressing sleep deprivation, which Hilb said looks little more than a red herring covering for the transportation crisis.
Elementary school students, who need a recommended 10 to 12 hours of sleep per night, will be getting between 45 fewer minutes and an hour and 15 fewer minutes of sleep, depending on school. In contrast, their middle and high school counterparts, who need a recommended two hours fewer of sleep, will receive between 25 and 55 additional minutes under the new plan.
But sleep has always been the focus of the change, Cortez said. Sleep, and student mental health.
In 2016 El Paso County lost more than a dozen students to suicide, a cluster of which occurred within D-20 schools. The district has been reckoning with mental health issues ever since, working toward solutions to address students’ emotional needs.
Through that work, Cortez said a common theme emerged among adolescents: lack of sleep. Meanwhile, other districts were finding success in moving start times later.
From the district’s yearslong push to improve mental health outcomes sprang the School Start and End Times Task Force, which heard from medical experts in the area as it pieced together its recommendation. Research showed later start times had positive impacts for middle and high school adolescents whereas changes in start times had little impact on elementary school students’ performance, Cortez said.
"It’s not about the hours of sleep or 'more sleep,' but rather about the circadian rhythms of adolescents and wake-up times. It gets to the question of 'don’t elementary students need sleep too?'" Cortez said in an email. "All students need adequate sleep, but the way adolescents' bodies are wired and their circadian rhythms, a later start time is better."
D-20 is also joining the ranks of the majority of its peers statewide, according to Cortez, as it was one of the last to stray from the three-tier system.
For Jensen, district response has been inadequate as she ponders her family’s next steps, feeling as though she is forced to choose between removing her kids from their schools or stepping down from her job.
Her family moved to the district two years ago after falling in love with Discovery Canyon Campus Elementary School and its principal.
“I was like, ‘Oh my God, we did the best thing for our kids,’” Jensen said. “And now it’s completely smashed my thought process about the district, about how much I need to watch them, my trust in them. I have no words. It’s going to change our entire lives.”
The change seems an impossible obstacle to conquer, she said, even with the limited flexibility her job offers. She worries for those with more rigid life circumstances, like nurses, teachers, military or single parents.
Channing Hughes, a D-20 parent of two who spoke at the Jan. 19 board meeting, said she conducted her survey of about 60 parents to see how the change would impact them. Of those she surveyed, one responded positively, one was neutral and all others provided negative feedback about the proposed changes.
“I’m a single mom. I run my own business. This is going to cost me at least $1,200 every month of lost work time, so the impact is not just in the complexity of the schedules,” Hughes said.
Hughes said parents expressed concern over high school students being unable to pick up their younger siblings, who will get out of school earlier, and an inevitable increase in child care needs.
“We’re not quitting. We’re going to push harder and harder,” Jensen said. “This is just the start.”’
Cortez said the district is open to learning and considering potential blind spots in the planned schedule change. The best way to prompt change is to email the district directly at the contacts listed at the bottom of its announcement online and share specific concerns, Cortez said. Administration will engage in conversation.