Modified open campus — a solution to tardiness, or would it make it worse?

We have a problem at Weston High School. Actually, we have more than one — but there’s one problem I want to write about here: every day we have an extraordinary number of students coming late to school and/or late to class. Clearly this has to stop.

Or does it? Maybe we can solve half of the problem by redefining it so that it is no longer a problem. No one is suggesting that it’s OK to come late to class, but some people are proposing that we eliminate half of the “tardy to school” problem by allowing students who have one or more free periods at the beginning of a day to arrive “late” without being “tardy” — assuming, of course, that they are on time for their actual classes.

This is not exactly a new idea. Some high schools have an “open campus,” where students are allowed to come and go as they please as long as they meet their obligations, such as showing up on time for all classes. Others have a “modified open campus,” where some students have that privilege, or where the privilege is limited to the beginning and end of the day (as opposed to leaving school during a free period in the middle of the day). When I was a teacher at Lincoln-Sudbury, we had a totally open campus, and it worked very well. I don’t know what they do now at L-S, but in the ’70s there was no such thing as study halls (if you have a free period, it’s a free period) and there was no particular issue about students’ coming to school at the end of a free first period and being on time for their second-period class. There was no issue within the school, that is. In the outside community there was no issue about this within Lincoln, but many residents of Sudbury had political or moral qualms. Some of them referred to L-S as “the country club,” because it was so unlike the kind of public school that they attended. Often there would be candidates for School Committee reflecting these views. They rarely got elected, and I have never forgotten a particularly memorable candidate who put forth the following proposal: “all students whose grades are below average must be assigned to a study hall during all ‘free’ periods.” When told at a public meeting that he was talking about half of the students (an enormous number to find rooms for, in such a large high school), he was flabbergasted and shouted at the Superintendent-Principal, “What kind of a school are you running if half of your students are below average??!!”

Fortunately he didn’t win the election.

But the political climate was different in the ’70s. As Garrison Keillor points out, “we’re all Republicans now” — but in the ’70s it was OK to be a liberal. This right-wing candidate’s position would be considered middle-of-the-road now, since he was actually advocating a modified open campus! At Weston we “compare ourselves with” a number of other suburban school systems, many of which have modified open campus plans. The two Newton high schools do (for 11th and 12th graders, I believe), and Brookline has it for almost all high-school students, starting midway through 9th grade. In all cases, parental permission is required, and the privilege is revoked if a student gets poor grades, is a behavior problem, misses a class, or is late to class more than a very small number of times.

And therein lies the reason for the success of modified open campus. At Weston (and most closed-campus high schools), students know that the penalty for being late to class is very tiny, and even the penalty for cutting a class isn’t particularly severe. But at schools with complete or modified open campus plans, students don’t want to lose this important privilege, especially since their friends have it. One Brookline parent reports to me that class cutting and tardiness are not a big problem — because of the punishment they entail. And certainly students’ morale improves when they are treated more like adults.

Four questions must be considered:

  • Would the School Committee approve such a plan? I have no answer to this question.
  • Why do so many students arrive late to school under the current closed-campus system? This question I can answer, at least in part. Teens in general need more sleep than they get, especially in high-stress schools, and it’s well known that getting up early in time to be at school before 7:30 doesn’t really fit their body clocks. So it’s natural for a student with a free first period to want to sleep in and to ask his or her parents to write a note so the tardiness will be excused. And it’s natural for the parents to agree. While this certainly isn’t the only reason why so many kids are late to school, I expect that it accounts for the majority of the cases.
  • Where is there to go in Weston? In other words, students who are not sleeping late might arrive at school and then choose to go elsewhere until the first class, but it’s not clear where they would go. There’s an exciting bagel store in Weston Center, I suppose. But we’re not like Newton North or Brookline, where there are things to do within walking distance of the high school. (What happens at Newton South or Lincoln-Sudbury, which are also isolated schools, like Weston?)
  • Finally, how would we live with the inadvertent race and class discrimination that a modified open campus would entail? I don’t have any figures (though I suppose I could get them), but it seems clear to me that white or Asian students who live in Weston are more likely to have their own cars than black or Latino students who live elsewhere and attend Weston High School, either as part of the Metco problem or because their parents work for the Town of Weston. Given the absence of places to visit within walking distance of the high school, we would be saying that students who drive to school would be allowed to absent themselves at the beginning or end of the day, but those who take the bus would not be able to take advantage of this privilege. I have trouble with this outcome, though I suppose the same thing happens now with “senior privileges,” our current system by which seniors in good standing and parental permission are allowed to arrive late or leave early if they don’t miss any classes.

Categories: Teaching & Learning, Weston