A School Schedule Built for Students

Earlier this month, we announced that BUA will be moving to a new academic schedule for the fall of 2021.

For too long, schools have defaulted to schedules that reflect the priorities of a factory model, ignoring what decades of research tells us about teenage brain development, student health, and the preconditions for deep, sustained learning. Outdated schedules have driven pedagogical choices, when the reverse must be true. Students deserve a schedule designed for them. 

The new schedule incorporates two main innovations: a late start every day, and fewer, longer class meetings per day — all while preserving the full teaching time we enjoyed before the pandemic. 

Pediatricians and experts on adolescent development have been telling us for years that the teenage brain tends not to “wake up” until later in the morning and that adolescents need between eight to ten hours of sleep per night. With all of the competing pressures on kids, sleep is the first thing to go. According to the CDC, seven out of ten high schoolers do not get enough sleep, and, on average, high schoolers sleep for about six and a half hours per night. This should be a wake-up call.

The BUA school day next year will begin at 8:55 a.m. on Mondays and Fridays and at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. Students will use the later start in different ways. Some will sleep in a little longer. Some will use the morning time to get homework done and go to bed a little earlier the night before. Others may come to school early to meet a teacher or work with classmates. Whatever the students’ choices, we are confident that it will make for healthier kids and better learning.

In next year’s schedule, each BUA class will meet three times per week for longer periods, rather than four times for shorter periods — the pre-pandemic norm. That means that most students will have three classes on some days and four classes on others.

The change will have a dramatic and positive impact on the lives of our students. Reducing the number of classes students have to prepare for each night will allow them to end the day with a sense of completion and mastery — a predictor of mental health and happiness. Rather than scrambling to finish their assignments and cross things off the list, they will have the time and space to focus on the three or four things they need to do for the next day. And we fully expect to see even deeper engagement in the classroom as a result.

The research is instructive here as well. Psychologists tell us that one of the key drivers of unproductive stress is having more on your plate than you can handle. Research from The Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA and the American College Health Association show shocking increases in the numbers of students reporting depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and feelings of being overwhelmed. Increasing the resources we devote to mental health support and education for students is necessary, but not sufficient. A change like this helps us address the root of the problem, even as we create opportunities for deeper learning.

That deeper learning is more likely to happen in longer blocks. Next year, each BUA class will meet for 60 minutes twice per week and 75 minutes once per week. Longer class periods are a good fit for the kind of deep, engaged learning that BUA is known for. The longer periods allow a conversation around the seminar table to continue, rather than being cut off at the 50-minute mark; they facilitate the hands-on work in the arts and in science labs and the inquiry-based approach to math that sets BUA apart from its peers; they allow teachers to do what they have always done — just better; and the longer blocks open the door for innovative pedagogy and projects not possible in the traditional 50-minute box. 

I think a great deal about respecting tradition and driving innovation. In this case, the innovations are designed to protect and amplify those things we hold most dear.

The new schedule maintains our commitment to maximizing the time students spend with teachers. With fewer, longer classes, there will be fewer transitions during the day — less time settling in and packing up — and a net gain of productive class time. It protects cherished common free time between teachers and students. We know that some of the most important learning happens in the quietest moments — when a student seeks out a teacher one-on-one to review a piece of writing, to follow up on a conversation in class, or just to solicit advice about life. One of the great advantages of being at BUA is the ability to take BU classes, mainly in the junior and senior years. We have designed the new schedule to ensure that students in both BUA and BU classes will have ample time to transition from one to another and to provide the broadest possible flexibility for students to enroll in BU courses.

There is also a lesson here about the pandemic and crisis planning. This year, driven by both necessity and the desire to experiment, we lived a schedule where some school days began later in the morning; where BUA classes met less often; and where some blocks were longer than normal. We have designed the new schedule to incorporate the best of this year’s changes while returning to several of our most cherished commitments.

We make these changes to serve our students. There is a false choice between social-emotional health and rigor. An evidence-based approach like this one can promote healthy sleep habits and help students manage stress while, at the same time, putting students and teachers in a position to increase the rigor, engagement, and stimulation inside and outside the classroom.

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