Starting today and resuming Monday, students and teachers across the Tampa Bay area will encounter major changes as they settle into the school year.
From beefed-up security to expanded mental health services and later start times, the list of things that are different from last year is longer and more consequential than any back-to-school season in memory.
Most of it can be traced to the elephant in the room: The Feb. 14 shooting that took 17 lives at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland and launched a sweeping set of laws aimed at defending schools against similar attacks.
Armed guards in elementary schools.
Frequent active shooter drills.
More fences, gates and locked doors.
A phalanx of newly hired psychologists, social workers and counselors.
New "threat assessment" procedures to identify and help students who might contemplate violence.
These and other changes — some more obvious than others — suddenly are part of everyday life in Florida’s public schools.
But the focus on security has overshadowed some new developments that, in any other year, might have been the big back-to-school story. Among them:
• New schedules in the area’s two largest school districts that represent a first — local policy makers acting on research showing that pre-dawn start times and teenage body rhythms conspire to undermine academics and mental health. Hillsborough County’s 27 public high schools will start at 8:30 a.m., an hour later than last year, and all but four Pinellas County high schools have moved to a 7:20 a.m. start, 15 minutes later than last year.
• A stepped-up emphasis on technical education that readies students for careers right out of high school. Pinellas Technical High at Seminole will open with programs in construction technology, game and simulation programming, commercial and digital art, nursing, electrical wiring and veterinary assisting. Pasco County, meanwhile, has turned Ridgewood High in New Port Richey into Wendell Krinn Technical High School, with 14 programs including auto collision and repair, commercial art, computer systems, cosmetology, culinary arts, marine science, robotics and welding.
• Two new state scholarship programs approved by lawmakers that will be open to thousands of students. The new Hope Scholarship allows parents who say their children have been bullied in public schools to apply for private-school scholarships starting late this fall. The state estimates 6,000 to 7,000 students will get the scholarships in the first year of the controversial program.
Another scholarship offers up to $500 to help pay for tutoring, materials and supplies aimed improving the reading skills of struggling third-, fourth- and fifth-graders.
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In Pinellas, where classes start on Monday, the vote to start high school 15 minutes later is seen as a beginning, with officials pledging to work on even later times in future years.
The changes are more immediate and impactful in Hillsborough, where elementary schools will start earlier and high schools and middle schools will begin later. More than 200,000 students in that district return to school today.
"I’m down for that," said Leto High junior Karen Rodriguez, referring to the new 8:30 a.m. start time at her school. While she still plans to set her alarm for 6:15 a.m., she said she looks forward to being able to sleep a little later on the nights she has to study late.
Valerie Chuchman, a chemistry teacher who commutes from central Tampa to Riverview High, also welcomes the change. Under the old schedule, she said, "there were nights when I crawled into bed at 8:15 to be up by 5."
Now, she said, she will start her work day at 7:40 a.m. with 50 minutes of planning time before the students arrive. The new schedule also is safer as students who drive, walk or ride their bicycles will arrive during the daylight hours.
"The 7:30 start time was very difficult for kids," Chuchman said. "We had our open house and the feedback I got from the kids was, they are excited too."
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Pasco County school superintendent Kurt Browning said the need to open a technical high school was clear for west Pasco. "There wasn’t a place where our students could get the training they needed to be out-of-the-gate employable," he said.
Area businesses embraced the idea, and it took off. With Krinn Technical opening along with other Pasco schools Monday, the district already is drafting plans to open a counterpart in east Pasco within the next five years.
In Pinellas, meanwhile, "Tech High" debuts Monday as the county’s first full-time technical high school, located on a campus that for decades hosted part-time technical programs. With a $13 million upgrade, including 16 new classrooms, it’s now a full-fledged high school, albeit without sports teams.
Browning echoes the discussion Pinellas officials had when they approved the new school last year.
"Everybody thinks you need to have a college degree. For those kids … we need to set them up for success," he said. "But I will also tell you there are students who need the opportunity to be successful, and they can do it without college."
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As faculty and staff returned to work in recent days in Pinellas, their back-to-school regimen included training on mental health, from suicide prevention to working with students who’ve experienced trauma. It’s all part of the district’s plan, based on Florida’s new law, to strengthen community partnerships and add social workers and counselors.
"We’re making sure that kids and families can access our staff," said Donna Sicilian, executive director of student services.
For the first time, every high school will get a full-time social worker. Among other changes: The district is helping schools spot gaps in training. And, through a partnership with the nonprofit group Sandy Hook Promise, it’s planning to launch an app for middle and high school students to alert officials anonymously if they believe someone may be considering violence.
One of the district’s goals, Sicilian said, is to better support "silent sufferers."
"Their behavior isn’t anything disruptive, but they are suffering, and we need to be able to identify them and reach out to them," she said.
Students also will get training on mental health and wellness, she said, to make sure they know what to listen for in their peers and how to get them help by telling an adult.
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Over the summer, school districts enlisted local law enforcement, security consultants and administrators to walk campuses in search of security gaps.
Leaders in Hernando County are still sorting through how to pay for the physical fortifications needed at schools, like new entrances and security systems, spokeswoman Karen Jordan said. However, students there and in Pinellas County are likely to notice a new policy requiring all classroom doors to be locked throughout the day.
Pinellas also will require exterior gates — with the exception of those in parking areas — to be locked during school hours, spokeswoman Lisa Wolf said. And every Pinellas campus will have a fenced perimeter with a single point of entry.
The district will continue to expand its use of glass, storefront-style entryways, Wolf said, so there is only one way to get inside school buildings.
As now required by the state, educators in every Florida district will have undergone active shooter training by the time school starts. Hernando staffers were trained by Palm Harbor-based security company Safe Plans this week.
"We’ve trained people to listen to what we tell them to do," Hernando superintendent John Stratton said. "But in case that doesn’t work for where you are, we are empowering you to make a decision."
Law enforcement agencies in Pinellas have worked with the district to conduct active shooter training for schools in their respective areas, Wolf said. St. Petersburg Police, joining with students from Gibbs High, created safety videos that will be shown to middle and high school students during monthly training throughout the year.
"Because the videos will be shown to students," Wolf said, "we wanted students to be involved in the process."
Staff Writers Claire McNeill, Megan Reeves, Marlene Sokol and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Thomas C. Tobin at [email protected] Follow @ThomasCTobin.