Tuesday, January 23, 2018

We answer some of your questions about school schedules in Hillsborough


We've been following closely the Hillsborough County School District's efforts to change school hours. A comprehensive plan was expected to come before the School Board on April 25, to take effect on Aug. 10. Now it's looking more like a piece of the plan will be approved for immediate implementation, with the district delaying the rest for a year.

While things were in flux at the time of our print deadline, we thought we would answer questions that parents and teachers have posed since the idea was made public in late March.

Why does the district want to change school hours?

Good question. We know it was one of the early recommendations of the Gibson Consulting Group, which was hired to save money. Gibson said that by spacing school hours in a way that had each bus serve three schools a day, the district could get by with fewer drivers and save $2.7 million a year. But Superintendent Jeff Eakins insists this is mostly about getting kids to school on time.

What are the new hours?

The proposal calls for 8:35 a.m. to 3:05 p.m. for most elementary schools, 9:30 a.m. to 4:25 p.m. for middle schools and 7:15 a.m. to 2:10 p.m. for high school. Magnet schools are on their own schedule, typically early like the high schools.

By my math, elementary days would get longer while high school and middle school days a bit shorter. Wouldn't that take class time away from the older students?

Not necessarily. The district says schools have flexibility in things like passing time between classes, homeroom, lunch and announcements.

But explain this: If high school buses are late now, how would an earlier schedule get them to school on time?

Here's the explanation we were given: Nearly half the buses now serve one or two schools instead of three. The system is chronically short on drivers, so they need to double up on runs. That makes buses late. With the new system, there would be fewer vacancies and fewer drivers absent for more reliable service.

Isn't 7:15 a.m. awfully early for high school? What about the studies that say teenagers can't get to sleep early enough to wake up for such an early class?

That's the science, we know. But 7:15 a.m. is not an unusual start time. High school starts at 7:05 a.m. in Pinellas County. Dismissal at 2:10 p.m. would give high schoolers more time to study, play sports, work at part-time jobs or care for younger siblings.

Do kids like this?

That's what they said in a focus group session at Sickles High. But a report on the focus groups, posted on the district website, quotes some students saying they have trouble waking up in time as it is.

Tell me more about the focus groups. Who took part and what did they say?

The report says 1,310 people met at 22 schools: 227 students, 930 employees and 153 parents. Their comments varied. Some parents said it would be easier to get their kids to school and themselves to work if bus hours were spread out; others said it would be harder. Some elementary parents welcomed the chance to give kids an extra half hour of sleep in the morning. Others said it would be hard for them to get to work on time, or schedule appointments after school.

And the feedback since then?

An early batch of more than 400 emails to Eakins showed parents disliked the plan by a margin of 4 to 1, compared to those who approved.

Is this why Eakins seems to be retreating from the plan?

Eakins told us Tuesday the proposal was just that — something for the public to review. He realized, after reading the emails, families need more time to adjust to some elements of the plan.

Would those concerns include the 9:30 a.m. start for middle school, which leaves many children unattended?

That was one, although the district has been working to arrange morning childcare and solicit donors to pay the fees for those who can't afford them.

This is happening in a year when thousands are losing bus rides, with the phasing out of courtesy busing within two miles of school. Can that be a factor in the backlash?

A. Some of the letter writers mentioned courtesy busing, others mentioned traffic. District officials pointed out that by spacing the bus runs at least an hour apart, they could reduce congestion in places where schools share a campus.

What did teachers say?

We heard from sports coaches who loved the plan. Advanced Placement teachers wondered if they would have enough time for their lessons, as class periods would be a couple of minutes shorter. And some teachers would lose the extra pay they get in schools that provide an extra hour of reading.

Why is that?

The plan would keep all elementary schools open long enough to comply with the extra reading requirement at the state's lowest-performing schools. Hillsborough has 38 of these. Extra reading time would be part of the regular school day.

The good news is, with those savings, the district could hire more art, music and physical education teachers. That's one of the plan's selling points: More "specials" in the younger grades.

Where do things stand? How much of the plan will be presented on April 25 and, of the components, how many would take effect right away?

As of our deadline earlier this week, we didn't know. Eakins said he was continuing to analyze the feedback. When asked if he would consider putting the entire thing on hold, he said, "that's on the table." But he also insisted several times that "we have to do something."

Can't the district just spend some money and give families a schedule they like?

It's like this: The state gives the district about $33 million a year for transportation. Hillsborough spends as much as $73 million. Where does the other $40 million come from? The general budget, which pays teachers and counselors, therapists and everyone else needed to meet the needs of 214,000 children. Eakins estimated that fixing the lateness problem without changing bell times would cost $2.8 million a year beyond what is already too much spent on busing.

For nearly two years, since he learned the prior administration had blown through $200 million of its reserves, Eakins and his team have been trying to rein in spending so they can protect the district's credit, cover payroll in an emergency such as a hurricane, and hire teachers at competitive salaries. No one denies this will be an adjustment. But, until they hit a wall of opposition, district officials seemed committed to seeing it through.

Contact Marlene Sokol at [email protected]


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