Students discuss school stress with the superintendent

TAMPA — From the mouths of babes, right? America has an obesity crisis. College-bound kids are under pressure to build their grade point averages.

So why not give honors points for physical education?

Hillsborough County school superintendent MaryEllen Elia thought about it. She cited state laws that would not allow such a thing.

Then she went philosophical on Joseph Piazza. "If the only reason you do anything in your life is because you're going to get to get honors credit, as soon as you walk out of high school, there's no more honors credit," she said.

"You've got to figure out what you want to do and why you're doing it, and you've got to make decisions based on what's important for you."

The brief exchange between the chief of the nation's eighth-largest school district and the senior class president at Alonso High School happened during the superintendent's annual student press conference.

For more than an hour Monday at Leto High School, student leaders grilled Elia on the budget, the environment, teacher pay and the stress felt by high-achieving students trying to get into good colleges.

"It's become not who's the smartest, but who can take the most AP classes in your schedule," said Danny Johnson, a senior at Plant.

Johnson asked if the district could limit how many Advanced Placement courses a student can take, so they can find room for electives without jeopardizing their class rank. "My electives this year consisted of European history and statistics," he said.

As with Piazza's question, Elia insisted it is up to the district to make the courses available, and up to students to decide how much is too much.

"How would I be able to change what the universities are doing?" she asked.

"You've got to make that decision that is the best for you. It's getting, as you said, very competitive. I think you're in charge of yourself. Our job is to provide lots of opportunities."

The crowd consisted primarily of kids in student government, or on their school newspapers. If some felt Elia had dodged their questions, they didn't say it — at least not to her face. From the uniformed ROTC teens who escorted guests to the media center to the culinary students who served quiche, everyone treated the adults with deference.

And most of the questions gave Elia a platform to showcase the district's success.

Test scores are climbing, she said. Attendance at Leto is 92 percent, proving you don't need exam exemptions to get kids to show up at school.

Actions taken years ago, including a reorganization of the bus system, left Hillsborough in such good financial shape, it can withstand this year's $100 million cut in funding. No one expects four-day weeks, the end of athletic programs or other measures that loom elsewhere in Florida.

"We have not ever been in a position where we had to fire anyone or do a layoff," Elia told Corey Thompson of Blake High. "And I don't anticipate that at all."

In the rare case where Elia did not have answers — a question from Freedom High about the need to recycle cafeteria trash, for example — she promised to send an e-mail.

And she did not seem to mind being contradicted in a question about Middleton High, where students walk through high-crime neighborhoods.

"If we need to put a bus there, then we will do that," she assured DeLisha McGriff.

There were moments when Elia had to remind her audience that there is just so much the schools can do.

To Joey Wolf of Wharton High, who complained that busses get stuck in New Tampa's traffic, she explained that the ongoing transportation overhaul should improve efficiency.

But, she added, "there really is one road up to Wharton and one road back. I did not organize and design that community, nor did I organize the roads."

Only once did she sound like somebody's mother. Heather Mills of Blake had asked if studies linking student learning to sleep patterns might suggest a later start to the high school day.

Elia said she has considered putting teachers on flexible schedules. She reminded Mills of the logistics of all those bus runs.

Then: "One of the practical things is, of course, just go to sleep a little bit early, right? Don't text as much, don't be online as long, whatever."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or sokol@sptimes.com.

Students discuss school stress with the superintendent 05/24/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, May 24, 2011 7:14pm]

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