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Hillsborough weighs options on early-release days

TAMPA — No easy fix emerged Tuesday to solve Hillsborough's school calendar tangle.

Speaking at a School Board workshop, district staff and principals said the plan offered by a subcommittee for next year — start classes an hour late most Mondays to make room for teacher meetings, rather than continue with the much-criticized 12 early-release days — could bring a whole range of new problems.

Steinbrenner High principal Brenda Grasso said she would be hard-pressed to find the staff or space to supervise early arrivals at her school, which enrolls nearly 2,000 students.

"It would be problematic for me if even half of my population showed up at the regular time," she said.

Board members agreed that teachers need time during the school day to plan and meet with colleagues. They cited those needs last summer when they included early-release days in the teacher contract during negotiations with the teachers' union.

"It decreases our dropout rate, it decreases our absenteeism, and it makes learning more equitable across all subjects," said school improvement administrator Debbie Rodgers, speaking of the benefits of teacher collaboration.

But finding that time without disrupting parents, or endangering students through a lack of supervision, is proving difficult.

Deborah Zink, supervisor of out-of-school programs for the district, said neighborhood schools could be overwhelmed by large numbers of students walking to school early.

"If a walk-up school has 300 kids, and teachers are in their classrooms planning, it's logistics," she said. "Where are those students going to be? There would definitely have to be a parent registration process so I could plan the staffing."

Right now, Zink said she relies upon local college students to staff the district's fee-based supervision programs before and after school. Persuading them to arrive by 6:30 a.m. won't be easy, she said.

Officials said the impact of delaying school by an hour on Mondays could differ, depending on the age group.

"I think most high school students would love that," said Robinson High principal Laura Zavatkay, citing research on older students' need for more sleep. She, too, cautioned that supervision might be a problem unless buses were delayed by an hour.

But Bryant Elementary principal Karen Bass said younger students won't necessarily benefit. They tend to wake up earlier, and teachers might lose the prime learning hours when students are alert and ready to work.

School Board members listened to the discussion and, for the most part, offered few clues about how they'll vote when the issue comes before them at a regular board meeting.

Member Stacy White said he wanted district staff to provide much more detail on the potential costs, transportation, and other factors connected to the late-start proposal. He argued for a consistent approach, saying it would become a "logistical and management nightmare" if each school were to develop its own plan.

Chairwoman Doretha Edgecomb said the district ought to consider a more familiar option — releasing students an hour early, one day per week — rather than venture into a new thicket of potential problems.

What's important, she said, is "to have parents know consistently when we're going to have those days. And they're already somewhat indoctrinated that it's going to be an early release day."

Parent Diana Lott, a member of the early-release committee, didn't sound so sure.

"Early release, to me, just doesn't work. It's a wasted day," she said. "I think teachers would be fresher on a Monday morning."

She said parents weren't impressed to see the calendar still up in the air last September, weeks after the start of school.

"It didn't sit well with a lot of people," Lott said. "They didn't view that as being very professional."

District staff will research the questions posed by board members, and then make a recommendation for a future board vote, superintendent MaryEllen Elia said.

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3400.

Hillsborough weighs options on early-release days 01/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 11:43pm]
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