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Those for and against early release days at Hillsborough schools speak out

TAMPA — Does letting students out of school early 15 times a year ultimately lead to a better education? Or just lower grades and attendance?

Both sides marshalled arguments Tuesday before the Hillsborough County School Board in what has emerged as the latest dustup over the academic calender.

Superintendent MaryEllen Elia stepped into the argument by proposing a committee of parents, students, principals and teachers come together to talk about the early release days issue and ideas for addressing it.

Time to make any changes for the upcoming school year, though, is not on their side.

A tentative deal on a teachers' contract calls for 15 half days, including the last day of school, in 2010-11, the same as last year. The contract first must be ratified by the teachers union, and then the School Board hopes to vote on it by Aug. 31.

A page on Facebook has encouraged hundreds of parents to oppose the shortened days, but half of the more than 30 speakers who lined up Tuesday were school employees who support the days.

"Teaching on the fly does not account for much," said Donna Violette, a third-grade teacher at Wimauma Elementary.

Teachers need time at work without students to plan lessons and collaborate ideas with other teachers, she said.

"Quality does not necessarily mean quantity," said Tim Binder, principal of Greco Middle School in Tampa, where the school grade improved to a B this year from a C.

The time is necessary for teachers, said Classroom Teachers Association spokesman Nick Whitman — especially if the district wants to continue an innovative approach to education including the $100 million Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation grant for teaching improvements.

Parents took the other side.

"Half days promote absenteeism," said Janie Stifler, who has children at Gorrie Elementary. "A five-day school week should be a place from which we begin, not a place from which we should retreat."

David Pogorilich, who has children at Lewis Elementary in Temple Terrace, questioned the relationship between this year's drop in school grades and early release days.

"Are you going to wait until the rest of the schools are F's before you realize this is nothing but failed contract negotiations?" he asked the School Board.

Some parents asked that the early release days be taken away entirely and replaced with full-day teacher planning sessions.

Elia said that was not likely.

"We would not receive funding for those days," she said.

The state requires students be in school a certain number of days a year, she said — and if students were given full days off, the school would not get state funding for that day.

Elia also tried to address opposition that the half days cause scheduling headaches for parents picking up their kids early.

Each elementary and middle school has an after-school program on early release days, she said The cost is $5 per child.

In other action, the board approved a method of evaluating effectiveness of the peer and mentor evaluators in the Gates grant reform that is similar to the way teachers will be evaluated.

Sixty percent of the evaluation will come from how the evaluators handle specific tasks, goals and other components. The other 40 percent will be derived from surveys of the teachers they work with.

Shelley Rossetter can be reached at (813) 226-3374 or srossetter@sptimes.com.

Those for and against early release days at Hillsborough schools speak out 08/11/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, August 11, 2010 7:53am]

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