Pinellas officials are again considering a change in school start times as they plan the rollout of a new system of "close-to-home" schools.
Early discussions have focused on moving the 7:05 a.m. start at high schools to a later time, perhaps 7:20 a.m. or 7:30 a.m., by the 2009-10 school year. But school superintendent Clayton Wilcox wants to begin tweaking the system as early as the coming year.
One idea: a pilot plan starting in August in which some high schools would share routes with a nearby middle school. Two examples would be Seminole and Osceola high schools, which have middle schools by the same names nearby.
Buses carrying middle and high school students would deliver the high school students first and make a quick stop at the neighboring middle school after that. The start times at all four schools would be in the 7:30 a.m. range.
The pilot would mark a significant departure from the district's longtime practice of keeping elementary, middle and high school students on separate buses. Pinellas middle schools now are served by a separate shift of buses and they typically don't start until 9:45 a.m.
While delivering middle and high school students together may be more efficient, officials expect some resistance from parents who have argued that mixing the groups would expose younger students to potential harm, such as bullying.
But Wilcox and other district officials say that fear may be overblown because school systems across the nation mix the levels with few problems. The pilot would be a chance to test how mixing might work in Pinellas, Wilcox said.
"I hear high school teachers tell me all the time that the last thing they want to do is teach a 7 o'clock class because the kids come and they sleep through the class," Wilcox said. "I can't keep high schools so early that it's a contributing factor to the malaise of high school."
He cited research decrying the unhealthy mix of early high school start times and teens whose body clocks often keep them awake until 11 p.m. or later.
Like many other districts across the nation, Pinellas delivers students in three "tiers": a high school run in the early morning followed by a wave of routes that gets most elementary kids to school between 7:45 a.m. and 9 a.m., and finally a mid-morning run to middle schools.
Getting all those students to school in one tier would require more buses and drivers than most districts ever could afford.
The result is a complicated web of routes. Adjust a route in the early part of the day and the impact cascades throughout the schedule. Pinellas' system is especially difficult because of the school choice plan, which allowed families to select schools outside their neighborhoods and led to long routes that continue to gobble time, fuel and money.
The effects of the choice plan will continue for another two to four years because the new plan will allow students to remain in their current schools. As future generations of students are placed in their close-to-home schools, the strain on the bus system will lessen.
In two or three years, Wilcox would like to see a two-tier schedule with buses serving high schools and middle schools on the early run. Elementary schools would be served on the second tier.
School Board chairperson Nancy Bostock said she's excited about the idea of changing start times.
Anything would be an improvement over the current start time for high schools, she said. "Twenty-five minutes (later) is definitely worth talking about."
On the prospect of mixing middle and high school students on the same buses, she said: "I think some parents may have some concerns but I also think the tradeoff for a better start time may be appealing for some of those same parents."
Wilcox said the pilot is a suggestion, not something he's strongly pushing. But he called on those who oppose the idea to help find other ways to reduce costs.
Many Pinellas parents and students were critical of a 2005 proposal by Wilcox to move high school start times to 9:15 a.m. with the final bell after 3:30 p.m. In hundreds of calls, letters and e-mails, they objected, saying the plan would not leave students with enough time in the afternoon for jobs and activities.
A Times poll found that 77 percent of parents were satisfied with the current schedule. Among parents with students in high school, 56 percent said they liked the 7:05 a.m. start time and 36 percent favored 9:15 a.m.
Wilcox said the current effort reflects the 2005 debate. He said 7:30 a.m. is a kind of "sweet spot" — late enough to be an improvement but early enough to still allow students the free time they need at the end of the day.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923.