LAND O'LAKES — For the first time in years, Pasco County public school students will have classes on Veterans Day in 2014.
The change is part of a trade-off that will allow the district to have a full week off for Thanksgiving, as it did in 2012 for what was supposed to be a one-time event.
It's a way to meet requests of many parents and staff who liked the weeklong holiday. It also guarantees that children will get something meaningful out of Veterans Day, superintendent Kurt Browning said.
"Right now, when we close this district for Veterans Day, I could probably count the number of students that attend activities for veterans on one hand," Browning told the School Board, as he asked for their approval of his proposed 2014-15 calendar. "These students have not a clue, in large part, what veterans are or the sacrifices they have made."
He pledged to have schools incorporate lessons about the military service into their Veterans Day curriculum.
The county Veterans Services division will provide ideas for programs, activities and other learning opportunities, director Brian Anderson said.
"Our goal is to serve veterans," said Anderson, who consulted with Browning before the board's vote. "One of the best ways to do it is to inform the community about the sacrifices that veterans have made. … We do look forward to serving that population of young people and getting them to be more aware."
About 54,000 military veterans live in Pasco County. According to the district, just one had contacted the administration to complain about students attending school on Veterans Day.
Having a weeklong vacation for Thanksgiving carries another benefit, as well, Browning added: It cancels two poorly attended days and reschedules them to when more students will come and learn. Absenteeism rises the Monday and Tuesday before schools close for the traditional three-day Thanksgiving break.
District records show that during the week before Thanksgiving this year, about 4,100 students were absent on Monday and 3,500 on Tuesday. During the holiday week, about 6,600 students missed Monday and 11,500 missed Tuesday, a 228 percent increase. Staff absences rose 35 percent, too.
By moving the Monday to Veterans Day, and the Tuesday to another class day, students are more likely to show up for instruction, Browning suggested.
Many employees and families asked the district to repeat the full week off for Thanksgiving after the board tried it in 2012. The difference that year was that Veterans Day fell on a weekend, so the district did not have to find the hours elsewhere.
School Board member Steve Luikart said he wanted to keep schools closed to honor Veterans Day.
"Everything we have comes from our veterans," Luikart said.
He suggested the district should find another way to make up the time, such as adding three minutes to the start and end of each class day in the first semester. The rest of the board did not follow his lead.
Browning noted that Hillsborough schools are able to have off both Veterans Day and the week of Thanksgiving because that district ends its first semester in mid January rather than mid December, as is Pasco's practice. Pinellas and Polk both have classes on Veterans Day and a week off for Thanksgiving.
Board member Cynthia Armstrong, a former teacher, rejected the notion of pushing the first semester past winter break, saying it's not best for students.
She voiced support for the calendar as presented, stressing that it was vetted by a committee of staff, students and parents.
"This is not a decision that is made without a lot of input," Armstrong said. "It is something that is looked at every year. If it doesn't do what we think it's going to do, we can change it."
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.