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Hillsborough schools may start in early August to cure calendar woes

TAMPA — Hillsborough County public school students could be in for a shorter summer.

The school district, seeking to even out the calendar and finish midterm exams before winter break, will consider asking state permission to start the school year earlier in August.

Just how early isn't clear, as the idea is in its infancy. But at a School Board workshop Friday, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said she will research how to seek a waiver from a law that requires school to start no earlier than two weeks before Labor Day.

Like the past year's controversy over early-release days and prior heated debates about religious holidays, drafting a calendar has proved a complicated process for school officials.

Issues facing them include money, testing schedules, a union contract that includes planning time, and a desire to satisfy families who travel during school vacations.

The solution, some members said, might lay in the kind of calendar that was common in Florida before the Labor Day law took effect in 2007. In the Tampa Bay area, school began in the beginning of August. Seminole County started as early as July 31.

"We started earlier and earlier," said board member Carol Kurdell. "The students loved it and it worked really well, and we know it worked well."

Opponents of the practice, who included leaders in the state's tourism industry, said it interfered with student job opportunities and teacher training. There was a protest group called Save Our Summers with the slogan: "School's cool … but not in August!"

The short summer, if approved, would happen only once, Elia said. After the district got on the new schedule, the year would end in May.

But there is no guarantee the waiver would last for more than a year, meaning the schedule might shift back again.

School Board members agreed that, despite the complicated process and possible backlash from parents, an early start and finish could cure a lot of headaches.

For example: To save money, schools now close a full week for Thanksgiving. The fall break is very popular, said member Jack Lamb.

But it comes at a cost. Short on time to complete a semester's work, the district schedules midterm exams in January.

It would be better to finish in December, member Candy Olson said. "I know in high school and I think in middle school, you get a lot more done because everybody knows they have an exam coming up," she said.

Members discussed the difficult placement of spring break. It must be timed, they agreed, with consideration to the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests, which all happen in the spring.

Teacher planning days and religious holidays were discussed. Because so many students are absent on Good Friday, members suggested using that as a teacher planning day. Similarly, student days off to attend the Florida State Fair and the Florida Strawberry Festival would double as teacher planning days.

No one suggested canceling the fair and festival days.

And there was a collective note-to-self not to end the school year on a Monday, as the district almost did last year.

"We are trying to balance so many different kinds of lives and needs," Olson said.

And they are doing so at a time of uncertainty, with Gov. Rick Scott vowing to rein in spending. The prospect of severe budget cuts makes it difficult to plan, said member April Griffin. "Something we need to think about, too, is furloughs," she said.

To which chairman Doretha Edgecomb responded: "I'm not going to live in fear of what the governor is going to do."

Charged with taking these ideas and crafting the calendar is a committee of more than 50 people including parents, teachers and community leaders. The committee will meet through late March and present its recommendations at another School Board workshop.

The board could vote at its April 5 meeting. They hope to adopt a two-year calendar, although the second year will be tentative.

News researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Hillsborough schools may start in early August to cure calendar woes 02/18/11 [Last modified: Friday, February 18, 2011 10:19pm]
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