Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Education

Deer Park Elementary parents complain about proposed school hour changes

NEW PORT RICHEY — Kim Hamm has lived near Deer Park Elementary for two decades, serving on the school's advisory committee and PTO board as her three children have learned in its classrooms.

One thing has always been clear about the working-class neighborhood around the school, she said: Parents work.

"I'm not aware of any parents in my community, unless they have new babies, who stay home," said Hamm, director of grant management for Youth and Family Alternatives.

So a change to the school's start and end times, proposed for the coming academic year to save some money, could create hardships for the families that Deer Park serves, Hamm said. The administration has recommended changing the school's first bell from 8:40 a.m. to 9:40 a.m. The end of classes also would be pushed back an hour.

Eight other schools also would see their hours adjusted — most later, one earlier — to save a projected $803,500 or more in transportation costs.

Reaction from most quarters has been limited. Complaints have not come from West Zephyrhills and New River elementary schools — also proposed to start an hour later.

But within the Deer Park community, dissension is gaining steam.

A growing number of parents, and even a few students, have emailed superintendent Kurt Browning and School Board members pressing for reconsideration. Many sound the same note as Hamm.

"My husband and I both work so unfortunately if this goes through our daughter would have to go to the PLACE program before and after school, extending her amount of time there and costing us more money," Margie James wrote to Browning. "I have been lucky enough to be able to start work later to avoid the before-school program but will not be able to push it any later if the school start time changes to 9:40."

News that PLACE fees are rising $5 weekly has increased the angst.

Parents raised further concerns that businesses near the school open at 9 a.m. A new Dollar General is rising close by, too. If school opens an hour later, they said, children would be walking past open rather than closed shops, increasing the traffic danger.

"The time changes at Deer Park are far more than just an adjustment or a minor inconvenience," wrote Carrie Fallon-Johnson, a Deer Park parent and a teacher at Cotee River Elementary. "Many of my neighbors are upset and concerned. We all have jobs and need to get our kids to school and ensure they have safe supervision."

Fourth-grader Aidan Schmidt had his own worries, which he expressed in a letter to Browning. His wanted to let the superintendent know how getting out of school at 3:50 p.m. would impact his after-school activities.

"Right now the Deer Park time is perfect," he wrote. "I get home from school and I have plenty of time for homework and reading. I have a healthy dinner and can still make it to football practice on time. Taking your time with your homework is important so that you understand things and get good grades. I don't think doing homework at 8:00 after activities are over is a good idea."

He joined the chorus asking that Deer Park's hours not change.

Ray Gadd, assistant superintendent for administration and operations, said he's not inclined to back away from the recommendation.

"When you look at all of our other elementary schools, almost all of them have 9:40 a.m. start times," Gadd said, suggesting that Deer Park families would find a way to manage just as Oakstead families did when that school experienced a similar change in 2009.

Truth be told, he said, the district would like to move all its elementary schools to a uniform bell schedule of 9:40 a.m. to 3:50 p.m. in the future, if it's possible. If the Deer Park change is approved, just six elementary schools (including Shady Hills operating inside Crews Lake Middle on its schedule) would continue to start at 8:40 a.m.

If the School Board rejects the change, though, Gadd added, he would just change the budget-saving projections to reflect the deletion. Board members have urged the staff to cut transportation costs, and earlier praised the administration for its proposals.

The board will take up the bell schedules for all schools during its meeting Tuesday.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at [email protected], (813) 909-4614 or on Twitter @jeffsolochek. For more education news visit the Gradebook at tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.

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