Some middle and high schoolers in Hawaii are getting up to six hours less of class time per week than their peers, thanks to the state’s historic lack of a minimum instructional time rule.

Lawmakers have tried to deal with the disparity in the past by setting minimum requirements, but a measure this session might bring about more equity for students across the state by standardizing bell schedules.

The state has almost as many bell schedules as it does public schools. And none of the state’s middle, intermediate and high schools right now meet the mark for a 1,650-minute minimum that is scheduled to take effect in 2014, according to a report the Hawaii Department of Education gave to the Legislature this session.

Instructional time in the state’s high schools ranges from 1,255 to 1,632 minutes per week — a difference of six hours. The variance is equally great in intermediate schools, and in middle schools the difference was as great as four hours.

Hawaii’s is not the only school district where the length of the school day varies, but the discrepancies are greater than in other districts Civil Beat surveyed, because it is one of the few that until recently had no requirements regarding how much instructional time students should receive.

Houston Independent School District, for instance, has a minimum school day length of seven hours based on Texas law, and explains in its secondary school guidelines that the exact length of the day varies from school to school. Houston also rejected a plan last year to streamline the district’s 19 different bell schedules in its schools down to four.

Hawaii’s debate over instructional time began two years ago after Furlough Fridays left parents frustrated that their children had lost 17 days of school in one year. They successfully lobbied for two new laws: One requiring 180 school days, and the other establishing a minimum number of minutes that students must receive instruction during the school week. Implementation of the instructional time law was put on a slower timeline last year when the Department of Education said enforcing it would be expensive and difficult.

Changing the length of the day at any given school is also subject to two-thirds approval vote by the teachers union members at that school. After the instructional time law was passed, principals were finding it difficult to get proposed bell schedule changes approved. Teachers at some schools turned down schedule changes even when doing so jeopardized some students’ ability to graduate on time, school community council members have told the Legislature this session, because a six-credit-per-year schedule didn’t allow them to earn a 25th credit that the Board of Education had added onto their requirements.

One attempt to get around red tape and costly implementation is Senate Bill 2535, which aims to do away with the new law and replace it with standardized bell schedules. The district would be required to develop a menu of four bell schedules for each level of school (e.g. elementary, middle and high school). The proposal would minimize the scheduling stress on principals trying to keep up with changing curriculum requirements and would also narrow the gaps between how much instruction time different schools’ students get each week.

“The the bell schedule thing is important from a practical sense, because you’re seeing such a huge range of school day lengths, and it’s hard to get a base standard in place when you have literally hundreds of bell schedules,” said Senate Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, who sponsored the bill.

It also has support from key education groups who say common — or at least similar — bell schedules would allow students from different schools to participate in more learning activities together, like virtual classes or after-school programs.

“This alignment in bell schedule would create opportunities for learning that are currently impossible with the many different schedules,” wrote Cheri Nakamura, director of the HEE Coalition, in testimony to the state Senate about the bill.

It would also put Hawaii among a growing group of districts standardizing bell schedules to increase efficiency and save money.

The Hillsborough County Public Schools district in Tampa, Fla. has standardized instructional day schedules for each school level (elementary, middle and high school) in order to maximize school bus efficiency, said External Communications Manager Linda Cobbe.

“Our bell schedule is based on bus schedules because most drivers do a high school run, followed by an elementary run, then middle school,” she explained in an email.

While the start and end times may differ for that reason, the length of the school day is consistent at each school level, with only a few exceptions out of the district’s nearly 230 schools.

Seattle Public Schools implemented bell schedules in 2009 for similar reasons, and the Albuquerque Public Schools district is moving in that direction as well.

But not all who would be affected by the change in Hawaii support it. A minimum instructional time should be enough, reason some teachers, who say that mandating common schedules for Hawaii’s 255 schools would be micro-management.

“I don’t want to be locked into ‘standardized’ when it comes to a bell schedule,” wrote teacher Colleen Pasco on the Hawaii State Teachers Association‘s Facebook wall. “Their rationale is related to instructional minutes. We already have requirements for the number of instructional minutes we must have during a week. Anyone who submits a bell schedule to the DOE for approval must meet those minutes requirements. Why do they need to cram a ‘one-size-fits-all’ down our throats?”

The bill in its current form would allow schools to seek a waiver from any of the four schedule options.

Although the proposal has practical benefits, Tokuda also considers it an opportunity to have a philosophical discussion about what constitutes “instructional time.” It’s time for Hawaii to identify where learning takes place and how students learn, especially at the secondary level, she said.

“I think it’s one of those issues you can ask 20 people in a room and you’ll get 20 different answers,” she explained. “For some, it’s sitting in the classroom, but for others, teachable moments take place in other places. This bill forces you to really have that philosophical discussion about where learning takes place and then increase student access to those opportunities.”

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