ST. PETERSBURG — Senior Robin Daniels was upset when she heard that Gibbs High School might be going to a longer day.
"At first, I was mad about it,'' the 17-year-old said of the proposal.
She was already dashing home every afternoon to take care of her son, Zy'kerion, so her grandmother, who watched the 3-year-old, could get to work on time.
Somehow, everything fell into place. Under the new school schedule, she was assigned to a dual-enrollment class and is earning college credits. New arrangements have been made for her son.
But the transition to a longer school day, brought on by Gibbs' failure to improve its test scores, hasn't been agreeable to everyone. Teachers now teach an extra class and work longer hours. They are being paid for their extra time, but it's a hardship for some. Few would talk on the record.
Kenneth Washington, a reading teacher who describes himself as an optimist, says teachers are overworked and overwhelmed.
"We really want to fix the problem, and if it means working over the extended day, we just want to see things change,'' he said, adding that he thinks the school administration is equally committed.
There are challenges, of course. "We are having a hard time connecting with the parent to get Billy to understand that he needs to study harder or he needs to do his work and that he needs to come to school," Washington said. "Some students have a lack of urgency in terms of dreaming big.''
Teachers say that many students come to them unable to read or even tell the time from clocks hanging in their classrooms, and there are complaints of students bullying teachers. Principal Kevin Gordon, whose appointment to his alma mater was lauded a year ago, says he strives to be both approachable and firm and that any student who hits a teacher would be expelled.
Princess Hemingway, a teacher from Clearwater High who recently answered the call for veteran math teachers at Gibbs, said Gordon is doing a good job at the school of 1,560 students.
"He's up against a lot. It's got to be stressful for him to have to deal with the personal issues of the staff. I think he's doing an awesome job, actually. I'm not fearful. I feel that I can go in, talk to him if I have a problem. He's visible all the time. He's always talking to kids. He's in and out of classrooms all the time. He makes his expectations very clear and he sets a high standard,'' she said.
As for teachers being dissatisfied, "They aren't complaining to me,'' the union representative said.
"I was willing to sacrifice because we believe in Gibbs and in this community,'' said Hemingway, who grew up in St. Petersburg and whose mother is a Gibbs graduate. "We are part of the solution.''
Gordon is philosophical about the push-back. "When you start something new, there are always some adjustments,'' he said.
Everyone seems to agree that Gibbs is in trouble. Last year, it became an F school based on results from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test. More bad news arrived days before the start of this school year, when Gibbs was put on "intervene'' status by the state Department of Education for its failure to improve test scores over a five-year period. Faced with increased state oversight, Gibbs became the first Pinellas County school to implement an extended day, adding an eighth class and moving the close of school from 1:50 to 2:25.
The new schedule, which went into effect Oct. 18, lets students take classes focused on their specific needs, such as preparation for the FCAT, catching up on credits to graduate, remedial work, dual enrollment for college credit and electives.
Whether a longer school day will solve Gibbs' problems is up for debate.
"It depends on what you do with the extra time,'' said Russ Whitehurst, senior fellow and director of the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Longer days appear to work for some charter schools, he said.
"Kids in such successful charter schools may be spending 40 or 50 percent more time in school than comparable students in public schools. That is likely one ingredient in their success in raising student achievement. But it's not just more time, it's how they're using it. … If it's math instruction, they are getting hours more math instruction. The intensity and the quality of the extra hours is what is important,'' he said.
The revised Gibbs schedule will continue at least until the end of this school year, said deputy superintendent Jim Madden.
It's too soon to know whether the new effort will work, said Della Abdullah, whose daughter is a senior in the school's BETA magnet program. "Do I think it has potential? Yes. It helps them get electives that they would not get otherwise.''
Washington's photography class is one of those electives. One of his students, Michael Hadley, 17, said he wasn't happy about the change.
"The first thing was I wanted to change my school, because the thought of being in school longer than I was already seemed, like, unbearable. Now that I'm doing it, I'm accustomed it,'' he said.
As for the photography class, "They just put me in it. … I don't feel like I'm getting much out of it, but if I get an A out of it, I'm cool.''
Courtney Plotts, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College, teaches a dual-enrollment class with Gibbs teacher Demetrius Williams. She said students are learning skills like note taking, time management and reading for understanding. Her 18 students are "wonderful,'' she said.
Sherry Howard, the school's community and family liaison, is getting feedback on the extended day from everyone.
"A couple of parents say their kids need the instruction time,'' she said.
"Kids, no, they don't like it, especially the juniors and seniors who have passed the FCAT. They feel they're being penalized.''
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.