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Northwest Cluster PTAs Ask BOE to Revisit Bell Times

November 20, 2015

Parents from schools which feed Northwest High School in Germantown had the opportunity to meet and address members of the Montgomery County Board of Education last night at Northwest and an overwhelming number of parents requested that the Board revert the elementary school bell times back to the old start and dismissal times.

   About 50 Parent Teacher Association representatives, parents, and staff from all elementary and middle schools had the opportunity to address Board members, promote their schools, and provide feedback on MCPS initiatives.

   The Board members in attendance, Board President Patricia O’Neill, Board Vice President Michael Durso, District 2 Representative (south Germantown/Gaithersburg) Rebecca Smondrowski, District 1 Representative (north Germantown/Poolesville/Damascus) Dr. Judith Docca, At Large member Phillip Kauffman, and At-Large member Jill Ortman-Fouse heard from a representatives of the Northwest Cluster’s seven elementary schools and two middle schools.

   Speakers brought a number of topics to the Board’s attention, but the most mentioned issue parents and staff in the cluster were facing was the new bell times that MCPS instituted for the 2015-2016 school year.

   In May, the Board of Education approved changes to bell times under pressure from high school parents who claimed that high school students were not getting enough sleep. As a result of the changes, Tier 2 elementary schools, of which six of the seven schools in the Northwest cluster fall into had start times moved back from 9:15 am to 9:25 am, and dismissal times were moved back to 3:50 pm. Elementary schools start 10 minutes later and end 20 minutes later—meaning the school day is 10 minutes longer.

   Under the new bell times, middle schools begin at 8:15 am and dismissal is at 3:00 pm while high schools hold classes from 7:45 am to 2:30 pm.

   “We hear consistent feedback that the change has negatively impacted parents, students, and staff,” said Amy Meekins, president of the McNair Elementary School PTA. “Our kids go to school later, but they are not sleeping more.  Parents and staff both report that children are more tired which is leading to more behavior problems and learning issues.”

   That sentiment was echoed by many of the speakers at Thursday night’s event. “Out of the 15 families that I surveyed with students at elementary, middle and high school level 13 did not like the new bell times,” Great Seneca Creek Elementary School PTA representative Doorly Wingar told the Board of Ed. “Two families said they enjoyed the extra time in the morning. However, the rest said they did not like the new bell times. As a result of the later start, in the mornings their children are just waiting around for the buses, which means they are bored and asking for more screen time or electronics time, which parents don’t want to give them. At some schools, the difference has required cutting of recess time, so the kids are given less time to spend outside to get energy out.”

   Matsunaga Elementary School PTA president Jennifer Zakalik told the Board, “Many children do not get home until 4:35 pm and have no time to go outside and play because it is almost dark at this time. It also creates problems for our medically fragile Longview School students. Many of these students do not live here in Germantown. The later dismissal times has reduced multiple after-school clubs which has made parents and students unhappy. We strongly encourage you to revisit your decision about the bell times.”

   While most the complaints about the new bell times came from parents of elementary school students, Northwest Principal Lance Demsey told the Board that high school students that were late in the past are still late under the new system.

   Board of Education members responded to parents concerns by saying that MCPS did not have enough funding or buses to accommodate a desired later high school start time and a reversion back to the previous elementary school bell schedule.

   Board member Judith Docca said, “In order for us to have the appropriate amount of buses for the tiered system that we’d like to have, with a later time for high school students, we would need $22 million to buy the buses and pay the drivers.”

   Lillian Gonzalez, a member of the Robert Clemente Middle School PALA, (Latino Parents and Students in Action), told the board that her daughter’s school bus is overcrowded and there is no seat on the bus for her and she has been forced to drive her to school. She also said that due to overcrowding at Roberto Clemente Middle School, she does not feel her daughter is getting enough attention from teachers.

   Board member Ortman-Fouse told parents gathered at the event, “We have to use our buses four times each day. That is why we have this crazy schedule because we don’t have enough buses.” She told parents to contact members of the County Council and County Executive Ike Leggett and urge him to fully fund the MCPS 2016-2017 operational budget that is scheduled to be released in December.

   Other issues brought to Board’s attention by PTA representatives concerned school matriculation policies. Torie Rodriguez of Great Seneca Creek ES PTA asked the Board to look into changing where students from Great Seneca Creek attended middle school. “Great Seneca Creek is unique in that our students get split up twice.” Currently, she said, half of school will attend Roberto Clemente Middle School and half will attend Kingsview Middle School, and then those students are split again when half attend Seneca Valley High School, and half attend Northwest High School.

   “It has a social impact on our kids,” said Rodriguez. “Our community tries to keep in touch with their friends from elementary school, but it is difficult, especially when they split again at the high school level.”

   Revonne Johnson, one of the organizers of the event spoke for Germantown Elementary School parents who asked the board to consider redistricting Germantown ES students to attend Kingsview Middle School, rather than Roberto Clemente Middle School. Roberto Clemente is 2.2 miles from Germantown Elementary while Kingsview is located less than a mile away. “Germantown Elementary is one of the smallest elementary schools in the county, so we are talking about less than 50 students. Kingsview is closer and is a better location to GES students,” Johnson told the Board.

   Roberto Clemente Middle School PTA president Melissa Regan asked the Board of Education to consider funding middle school security officers based on the size of the school population, and not just based the policy that a middle school should have just two security personnel. Currently, MCPS calls for all middle schools to have two security personnel.

   “The usual two security assistants employed at middle schools have to deal with a population comparable to that of a high school that has five to six security personnel on their staff,” said Regan. “Middle schoolers are in the throes of learning impulse control, providing security personnel based on the number of students in the building rather than just two per school would prove significant to manage and maintain a level of safety for everyone.” She also said that it would benefit Roberto Clemente to hire a female security member to better meet the needs of female students.

   Finally, the Board of Education President O’Neil gave a status update on the Board’s search for a new Superintendent for MCPS. She said that there is a “season” for Superintendent searches which is designed around a July 1 deadline. “We’ve advertised. We’ve been recruiting. We are early in the season, but we are aggressively working on recruiting the very best superintended and we will have a new superintendent in place by July 1. It is our number one priority.”

   Interim Superintended Larry Bowers is scheduled to retire at the end of June.

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