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Keeping Up With Bells, Schedules, and Uniforms: A Day in the Life of a School

Wednesday, March 2, 2016  
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By Christina Mimms, SAIS

The daily aspects of school life, such as bells, schedules, and uniforms, don’t wow people like a shiny new STEM building or a talented artist in residence. They do, however, impact every student every day, and thus impact the actual learning taking place on campus. Many schools have dramatically changed their bell system, their daily academic schedule, and their uniform policies to improve how students and faculty function each day to align better with their goals for learning, as well as with their overall missions.

Bells play a significant role in history, as well as on many school campuses. For example, at Saint Mary's School in Raleigh, NC, the bell in the Ehrgott Chapel Bell Tower, a memorial gift for alumna Ann Renee Smith Ehrgott '54, is rung to call the students to each chapel service twice weekly and just before alumnae weddings. The school also has rung the bell in memory of those lost in national tragedies, such as the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Charleston church shooting. Saint Mary's uses no other bells, with teachers ending class at the appropriate times and students managing their own transitions between classes. At many schools, bells have evolved from a brass bell rung by hand to a more computerized tone emitting from a speaker system, but some schools have completely given up the gong for a self-directed system with great success.


With the opening of The Epiphany School of Global Studies in New Bern, NC, in 2006, the school founders decided not to install a bell system. “We felt that philosophically, bells institutionalize people,” said David Wang, assistant head and principal of the upper school. “We’re a college prep school and people don’t use them in college.”

The school holds a ten-minute morning meeting in the auditorium each day, during which students or teachers read announcements. Because they are live in front of others, students tend to get theatrical in their announcements, Wang said. For example, recently students announced a James Bond theme for this year’s prom and performed a short skit in the morning meeting. “It’s brought some life to morning announcements,” Wang said. 

The school did install a phone/paging system on campus, with a speakerphone in each room. Office staff can call in to a classroom if they need to dismiss a student or announce a drill. Students have five minutes of travel time between classes, and teachers have to build in a “closure” time for each class, rather than allowing a bell to halt the class period. Tardiness has not been an issue, although sometimes if students are dismissed a little early, they can be a bit noisy in the hallways, Wang said.

“We’ve been very successful with it,” he said. “But if you’re going to do a schedule without bells, do it at normal times, like five or ten past the hour, not 8:17 or 9:04. Strange times confuse people.”

Educators at Trinity Presbyterian School in Montgomery, AL, used a technical glitch last year as an excuse to eliminate its bells. The school clocks, which were tied to the bell system, experienced a malfunction and for several weeks, the bells did not work. “Even after the clocks were fixed, we did not bring the bells back,” said Mike Zavada, middle and upper school principal. “We looked at it as an opportunity. If we had eliminated the bells another way, there might have been more anguish or more time to think about it, but we didn’t have much feedback either way.”

Some leaders at the school always thought that the bells were a distraction or an impediment to learning. “We want the learning to be authentic and the bell automatically stops the conversation or the lesson,” Zavada said. “If there is a natural stopping point a few minutes early that’s okay.”

There is a warning chime at 7:55 AM to direct students to class, and another chime toward the end of the morning break. Otherwise, students are responsible for getting themselves where they need to be.

Sometimes bells can be more helpful than disruptive, especially on days with unique schedules. At Charlotte Country Day School in Charlotte, NC, students’ daily schedule includes two flex times for about 25 minutes each, one in the morning and another right before lunch. When the school holds an assembly, they combine the two flex times but then the times of the rest of the classes change, creating a little confusion among the students. “The bells help remind people and they are nice in that regard,” said Matthew Less, head of the upper school.

However, because the system is older and quite loud, the school is looking to replace it with a newer program that also has an intercom system and more options, such as to inject music or other tones. “If we’re going to have bells, we’re going to have fun bells,” Less said. 

While schools may experience some challenges in altering or discarding their bells, they will encounter far more issues in crafting a new daily schedule. Ravenscroft School in Raleigh, NC, debuted a new schedule for the 2015-16 school year, the consummation of a three-year process led by Chris Cox, assistant head of the middle school and schedule design chair.

“How you schedule your time indicates what you value,” Cox said. At Ravenscroft, which placed student wellness as the top priority, the old schedule wasn’t meeting their needs anymore. Students assembled for every class every day for 45 minutes, but that setup gave way to an eight-day rotating schedule with eight periods and six classes meeting each day. The change gave students less homework, more flexibility, and more time. The school added more electives, more advisory time, guidance activities, tutorial periods, and free time for older students.

“It has changed the culture of the school for the better,” Cox said. “Kids are going to bed sooner, and feeling less rushed and more balanced. Teachers have more time to be more reflective in their classes, and I’ve even seen more of them eating together this year than ever before.”

Throughout the process of developing the new schedule, Cox and his committee of about 14 faculty and administrators sought to meet one essential goal with every proposed change: “Maintain and enhance an excellent academic program but improve overall student wellness.” 

They also looked toward the school’s mission to nurture educational potential and nurture independence among students. “We’re teaching students how to navigate their time and how to manage their time,” Cox said. “How are you leading yourself during a free period?”

Tipton-Rosemark Academy in Millington, TN, is in its fourth year of a six-period trimester system, with great results, according to Head of Schools John Scott. “We studied this at length, visited other schools, and looked at all the options,” he said. Stemming from a need to offer more elective classes and ACT prep time, as well as reduce the length of individual classes, the change also allowed for more frequent progress reports. 

Each class meets for 57 minutes, and there are 12 weeks per trimester. Core classes such as English, math, and social studies meet all year, but other classes, such as fine arts, journalism, creative writing, or wellness, meet for one or two of the trimesters. Each day includes a ten-minute break, and chapel is held weekly. On days with a speaker or special assembly, the school runs its chapel day schedule. Faculty meetings are held before school on Tuesdays or after school on Wednesdays.

“The six-period trimester fit our needs and enhanced our program a lot,” Scott said. “We have some flexibility in our schedules and more time in our core classes.”

Teachers also enjoy the opportunity to teach different classes through the enhanced electives program. “We haven’t needed any additional staff,” Scott said. “Our staff is very diverse in subjects that they are able and willing to teach.”

One area of school life that all teachers must be willing and able to manage is school dress code. Skirt lengths seem to provoke the most discussion and the most infractions. At Ashley Hall in Charleston, SC, Upper School Director Mary Schweers and her colleagues use a $1 bill to measure and ensure that the skirt is the proper height above a girl’s knee.

At the start of the school year, Schweers distributed a $1 bill to every teacher and early in the school year, they held all students after a morning meeting to check skirts. They keep a supply of extra skirts on campus and if a student is in violation, she obtains a skirt from the uniform closet. If the same student violates again, she gets a Saturday School detention.

Several years ago, students had the opportunity to work with a school committee to help design a new uniform skirt. Manufactured by Tommy Hilfiger, the new skirt gives students a third option in their uniform wardrobe. “They love it because they feel like they have ownership,” Schweers said. Ashley Hall students  occasionally enjoy dress-down days, on which they can wear jeans, shorts, and casual shoes. “I love uniforms though,” Schweers said. “It levels the playing field and they don’t even have to think about it.”

Stratford Academy in Macon, GA, found a new way to regulate its dress code this school year with the “Index Card Challenge.” Upper School Principal Margaret Brogdon purchased a stack of neon-colored 3 x 5 index cards and distributed them to teachers as their measuring stick for skirt lengths, which may not be higher than five inches above the knee. They asked students to “meet the challenge” and also to help self-monitor. A teacher often will ask girls to measure each other during advisory time. 

A new consequence instituted this year is that if a girl’s skirt is too short, she is sent to the campus store to purchase leggings, which are billed to her student account. Brogdon sent out a letter over the summer explaining the new procedure and so far, has not heard any complaints from parents. In fact, she said parents are doing a better job at home to monitor skirts so that they do not receive the charges for the leggings.

“We didn’t want to send students home or have parents leave work to bring them clothes,” Brogdon said. “We also didn’t want to publicly humiliate them, and a lot of girls wear leggings anyway. It’s been the best solution we have found.” 

No one wants to take away from class time or from higher priorities to deal with uniform or dress code issues. At Mount Paran Christian School in Kennesaw, GA, High School Head Eric Bradley has shied away from adding uniform skirts for girls, partly based on warnings from colleagues. “Just about everyone says, if you don’t have skirts don’t add them,” he said. “You spend a lot of time policing lengths.”

Currently, girls wear khaki pants or capris, and boys wear khaki pants or shorts. The school evaluates the dress code just about every year and is considering adding a skort option for girls.

“The whole goal is for the students to be known by who they are and their personalities, not for their attire,” Bradley said. “Uniforms do take away from social pressures a bit. The challenge is to make a policy that is appropriate and not take all your time enforcing it.”

Students at The Altamont School in Birmingham, AL, enjoy more opportunities for self-expression as they do not have uniforms. Students follow a dress code, and teachers sometimes are inconsistent about enforcing it. As part of the school’s leadership program, a student formed a group of about 15 student volunteers to work with the administration on dress code issues.

“They’ve taken a pretty mature approach to it,” said JP Hemingway, head of the upper school. “By drawing them into the conversation, I have every hope that we will come up with some workable solutions.”

For example, the students proposed one day each month to be designated for athletic-type attire, which currently is not permitted. They also suggested sending a student with questionable attire to his or her advisor instead of to the dean of students.

Whether or not a school has uniforms, uses bells, or operates a rotating schedule, its mission and the needs of its community members should dictate any procedures, or changes to procedures. With that perspective in mind, the activities of daily life truly support and enhance the larger goals for the school and its students.  


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