Hillsborough officials to look again at making Good Friday a school holiday

TAMPA — Poor student attendance on Good Friday has Hillsborough school officials rethinking next year's calendar.

"Anything is possible right now," district spokeswoman Linda Cobbe said Monday.

Forty-two percent of Hillsborough students stayed away from class Friday. About 19 percent of the bus drivers were absent. And 10 percent of teachers — about 1,400 — called in for substitutes.

"I truly believe parents are speaking by not sending their kids to school," said Melissa Erickson, president of the Hillsborough County Parent-Teacher Association.

Erickson said her seventh-grade son attended all but two periods Friday, when she checked him out to attend a religious service. While in school, he found himself watching Finding Nemo in orchestra and Selena in Spanish class.

Initially, district leaders planned to collect one more year of attendance data on Good Friday, the Christian holiday commemorating Jesus' crucifixion, before deciding whether to make it a school holiday.

But School Board member Jennifer Faliero said she thinks last week's numbers give the district enough secular justification to revisit the calendar without crossing lines requiring separation of church and state.

"The school district is not operating and functioning properly," Faliero said. "I think its pretty conclusive."

The board is expected to discuss the calendar at its 3 p.m. meeting April 20. Through a spokesman, superintendent MaryEllen Elia declined to comment. Judy Rainone, the administrator overseeing the calendar committee, also declined to discuss the calendar.

Constructing a school calendar in any district is tricky, given state mandates for standardized testing, school start dates, and union contracts that require teacher planning days and more.

But Hillsborough in particular has struggled for years to balance the interests of various religions with its holiday schedules.

In 2008, after officials decided to create a secular calendar, 58 percent of students didn't show, 400 bus drivers missed work and more than 1,900 teachers called for subs.

School Board member April Griffin said last week's numbers are an improvement over 2008, but she thinks more data are needed. In 2009, students and employees were all off because Good Friday overlapped with spring break.

Griffin said she'd like to be able to accommodate holidays for most religions in the schedule, but it's impossible given state laws dictating district activities.

Jonathan Ellis, president of the Tampa Jewish Federation and father of three who is serving on the calendar committee, disagrees. If Good Friday is deemed a holiday next year, he said, then so should the Jewish holidays and those of other major religions.

Otherwise, he said, keep it as it is.

Other potential kinks in the upcoming calendar: the Florida Department of Education has scheduled FCAT testing next year for April 11-22. That means the second week of testing, usually reserved for make-up tests, will overlap with Good Friday.

Cobbe, the district spokeswoman, said options include requiring all students to take their make-up tests prior to that Friday. And though the district typically delays spring break until after FCAT testing, it is possible they could move the week-long holiday earlier in the year.

Faliero said she's definitely a supporter of that idea. "I can't wait to go back and revisit the calendar," she said.

School Board member Candy Olson said that if anything, the new numbers left her disappointed with parents.

"From what I heard, the students weren't filling churches," she said. "They were at the mall and the beach."

She's also bothered by reports that students who did attend school spent their day in study hall and watching movies.

Olson said she wants to hear what administrators have to say, but she is leaning toward making Good Friday a no-student day.

Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough officials to look again at making Good Friday a school holiday

04/05/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 5:47pm]

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