Pinellas middle schools would be allowed to offer more elective classes and possibly lengthen their day under a schedule change proposed by the district.
The six-period day now in place at most middle schools would be replaced by a schedule allowing for as many as two additional classes. Administrators have proposed extending the middle school day by as much as 22 minutes.
The proposal is partly a response to a bill in the Florida Senate that would require more physical education classes in middle school. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, is expected to sail through the Senate's Pre-K-12 Education Committee in a hearing today.
The state already requires middle school PE, but allows students to opt out in favor of gifted classes and yearlong electives. Only half of Florida's middle school students are enrolled in PE, according to the Department of Education.
Constantine helped lead last year's effort to require more PE classes in elementary school. He said Tuesday his efforts to restore PE go back about five years and are rooted in concerns over childhood obesity.
"It just needs to be done," he said, citing studies by the state. "There are just too many kids running around today that have no concept of play time. & It's the right thing to do."
But educators in Pinellas and other districts say more PE could further crowd a middle school schedule that already includes state-mandated classes in intensive reading and math for struggling students. They say it has become difficult for some students to work in electives, which help kids explore new interests, prepare them for the rigors of high school and keep them engaged in education.
"We have teachers that really want to teach (electives)," said Stephanie Joyner, director of middle school education for Pinellas. She listed subjects as varied as computer graphics, drama and music theater in addition to the more typical offerings of band and foreign language.
"We have great opportunities out there," Joyner said. "It's just that right now the schedule doesn't allow for those opportunities for most students."
Pinellas officials say they would be considering the schedule change even if the PE bill had not surfaced. Among their reasons:
• Keeping kids engaged by taking more electives could help improve Pinellas' mediocre graduation rate.
• Electives could improve the district's "market share" in a time of declining enrollment, helping attract students who might otherwise choose private schools.
• In tough budget times, packing more classes into the day could allow the district to get more for each dollar it pays teachers. Under the current schedule, for example, most middle school teachers are in classes for five of six periods, or 83 percent of the day. If they taught seven of eight periods, it would be 87.5 percent of the day.
Officials say they would not impose one schedule on all middle schools, and superintendent Clayton Wilcox has said he would not support a straight eight-period day.
The district is leaning more toward flexible schedules that would alternate subjects on different days. Middle schoolers accustomed to 54-minute classes instead might have a mix of classes in the 85- and 45-minute range.
The district is debating how it might implement the proposal and whether it could be in place for the 2008-09 school year. The idea is the work of a committee of teachers, principals, district administrators and union officials who have been meeting for two years to discuss middle and high school reform. Members of the panel have insisted that each school be allowed to devise its own schedule.
"How many times can you say you get a chance to redesign your school?" said Kim Black, president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. "That's where I think the opportunity is incredible."
If there's a downside, said Black, it's that middle school teachers could be expected to work harder for the same pay. In the current six-period schedule where teachers teach five classes, they would see 110 students next year. Under the proposed schedule they would see as many as two additional classes, which means more students and more papers to grade.
The district says it would give each teacher no more than 140 students, but Black said that number sounds unrealistic.
"We're definitely not interested in doing anything to increase the teachers' workload," she said.
District officials say middle and high school teachers spend a smaller percentage of their day in front of students than elementary school teachers. They say the change could make the system more equitable.
But Black said that argument doesn't account for the time middle and high school teachers spend with students outside the classroom.
"There's a lot more things that go into teaching besides the number of minutes you're in a room," she said.
The shortage of elective opportunities is especially acute among student who perform poorly on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. They are required by the state to take remedial math and reading courses, leaving little or no time for electives.
In Hillsborough County, most middle school students already take PE daily, said Josie Sanders, general director for middle schools.
"If it's mandated, it's mandated," she said of the PE bill. "My understanding is if it does happen, it won't be too much of a challenge for us."
But Steve Vanoer, Hillsborough's PE supervisor, worries about having enough teachers in place for daily fitness lessons at every school. If the legislation passes, he said schools will face some scheduling hurdles.
"It'll be a challenge, and particularly with the students that are taking intensive reading and math," he said.
Constantine's bill originally called for 225 minutes of PE a week in middle school. But objections raised by music teachers and others led to a change Tuesday.
Constantine amended the bill to require "the equivalent of" only one PE class per day for one semester each year, offering districts some flexibility. In addition, students could easily opt out with a letter from their parents saying they wanted to take another class or they were active in athletics outside of school.
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923.