Silence, not bells, reigns at more Napa schools

September 19, 2016
Napa Valley Register

New Technology High School

It’s been about a month since Justin-Siena high school students returned to campus, but there’s one thing missing.

The school bell.

At the start of this school year, the north Napa private Catholic high school eliminated the use of traditional ringing bells to alert students as to when classes begin and end.

Silencing the bell has been something the school talked about for years, said school Principal John Bordelon. This summer the change was implemented.

Bells to signal the start and finish of work come from the 19th century factory work model, noted new school administrator Emily Dutton. But students aren’t factory workers, she noted.

“We wanted to move away from that to help give the students a sense of autonomy and trust,” she said. “And they’re responding well to it.”

In the Napa Valley Unified School District, bells have been removed at American Canyon High School and New Tech High School. Vintage High School uses a bell system but also plays music chosen by students one minute before classes start. Napa High School still uses a traditional bell system as do the middle schools.

When Justin-Siena first announced it was doing away with bells, “I was worried,” admitted Mathieu Sanders, a senior. Listening for the bell to know when class was going to start “was a habit,” he said. He worried that students would be tardy and teachers wouldn’t know when to start teaching.

“I was kind of scared to be late to class,” said sophomore Juliana Kunst.

But three weeks into the new school year, students said they had gotten used to the new system and the new responsibility.

Today, “If you don’t make it to class, it’s your fault,” said junior Alicia Prince.

“I really like it,” said Terra Wallin, also a junior. “In the real world, you don’t hear a bell for a meeting,” she said.

“After a while you get used to it,” said Kunst.

Eliminating the bells “teaches you how to manage your time,” said Neha Sidhu, a senior. “Each student has much more personal responsibility” to watch the time.

Tenth grader Caroline Chatagnier said she likes that it’s quieter between classes. The campus “is more relaxing” without bells clanging during the day.

“Last year I relied on the bells a lot,” said 10th grader Mario Schmutz. But he’s also adapted to life without bells. “I’ve only been late to class once,” he said.

Without the bells, the campus “feels like a college environment,” said senior Sarah Ryan.

The change seems to have paid off on the teaching side of the school.

Administrators say tardiness has dropped as much as two-thirds. Some of that could be attributed to the new 9 a.m. start time, but tardiness between classes has also been reduced, said Dutton.

With the bells silent, kids are actually doing a better job of getting to where they need to be, and on time, she noted.

Dean of Students Adolfo Guevara said that when the plan was announced during orientation, he could see how surprised the students were, but “as we got into it, it just became very natural. The kids are stepping up to the plate.”

Mark Morrison, executive director for secondary education for Napa Valley Unified School District, said he sees advantages to a school day that isn’t regulated by bells.

“I support campuses not having bells (and) and schools creating climates and culture where students take responsibility for their learning and their work ethic.”

Putting the responsibility of getting to class on time “helps kids be career and college ready. It helps them with real world time management,” said Morrison. In a work environment “you need to show up and get your work done. That’s the way the real world works, deadlines.”

Of course there are advantages of using bells at schools, he said. With large campus, 1,000 to 2,000 students or more, bells help to signal transitions. “It helps make the flow of that campus effective,” he said.

Going bell free “could lead to an increase in tardiness,” said Morrison.

To help encourage students at bell-free schools to get to class on time, Morrison said many teachers will create an “entry event” in the classroom, something that motivates kids to get there on time. That could be an assignment that must be completed within the first three or four minutes of class.

Using such incentives, “The teacher creates a more real world way to get kids to class,” he said.

“At American Canyon High School and New Tech, you’ll see kids almost scurrying to class not because a bell rang but because they want to get their assignment done.”

Napa High School Principal Annie Petrie said, “We have a long tradition of using bells and it hasn’t been problematic for us. Down the road, who knows? But right now, they work for us.”