TAMPA — It was only two weeks ago that the Hillsborough County School Board finalized its calendar for the current school year, amid parent complaints and a last-minute reduction in the number of controversial early-release days from 14 to 12.
Parents called that an improvement, but said such days threw their schedules into chaos and reduced classroom learning time.
So on Tuesday, a new board committee got busy defusing the issue in time for next year's calendar. It includes parents, teachers, administrators and union officials. And it has little more than a month to figure the issue out.
"A lot of concern has been raised over early-release days," said deputy superintendent Ken Otero, co-chairman of the early release committee. "I hope to have some closure to this by Nov. 8, (when) the calendar committee meets."
Over the next month, the new committee must consider all the variables, said co-chairwoman and county PTA/PTSA president Melissa Erickson. Those include the district's budget, current contract, time for instruction, research on effective teaching, and the impact of early-release days on families and after-school care.
One teacher suggested that after-school needs are beyond the committee's mandate.
"We're more than a babysitting service," said Jason Levy, a social studies teacher at Steinbrenner High School. "We're here to educate students."
But Robles Elementary teacher Rayeanne King said after-care issues matter to teachers as well as parents.
"If a parent can't pick up a child, it falls back on the teacher," she said. "You spend an hour calling the parents. We're still responsible. We're liable."
Early-release days provide teachers with crucial opportunities to plan lessons and talk about students in "professional learning committees," said Debbie Rodgers, a principal on special assignment to the district's school improvement office. Such work has been shown to produce "higher student learning across the board."
And teachers need time together to discuss and interpret student testing data, said Grady Elementary principal Melanie Bottini.
"You can't do it alone," she said. "It's a necessity now to do this together with others."
Roosevelt Elementary parent Kim Falconer didn't dispute such arguments, but she said the current system is out of balance.
"I think there can be a few days used for planning, but I think we have taken it too far," she said. "If we can make any change, that's an improvement."
The group will hold its next meeting at noon Oct. 11 at the Hillsborough Education Foundation, 2306 N Howard Ave. For more information on the committee, visit earlyrelease.mysdhc.org.
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400.