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Hillsborough County students to soon get a short day each month

TAMPA — Even as they apologize for not warning parents about major changes to the bus system this year, Hillsborough school officials have yet to tell parents about another disruption coming up.

Starting soon, schools will begin sending students home early one day a month so teachers can have more time to plan. That's in addition to two early-release days and a full planning day already on the school calendar.

The teachers union says the additional early-release days are a done deal. School officials, however, say they can't communicate the change to parents until a formal vote by the School Board, even though the short days could disrupt after-care arrangements for many students.

Susan Stahler, whose son is a fifth-grader at Buckhorn Elementary in Valrico, doesn't understand why teachers need the extra time.

"For them to get more planning time, I have to question that they're using their time wisely," said Stahler, who works until 5 p.m. and worries about her son spending more time home alone after school.

Teachers say they need more planning time to better organize their lessons. School Board Chairman Jennifer Faliero doesn't doubt it, but wonders how the district will address extracurricular activities, after-school child care and other issues associated with early dismissal.

"That's a lot of shuffling once a month," said Faliero, who acknowledges that many parents are still angry with the school district over its poor handling of school bus changes.

"We're going to have to work it out," Faliero said of the early dismissal plan.

• • •

While the School Board still has to vote on the changes, the early release days were agreed to in collective bargaining, which makes the extra planning hours a certainty, said Yvonne Lyons, executive director of the teachers union.

Teachers also have to approve the changes, but that's considered a formality. Lyons hopes to have all the votes counted by Oct. 20.

The union is suggesting a planning day already scheduled for Oct. 17, which is a Friday, be changed to an early dismissal and switched to a Wednesday.

The School Board doesn't meet again until Oct. 7. It's unclear whether the contract will be on the agenda. School officials said parents will be notified about the early dismissals at some point, most likely via the district's Web site, automated phone calls and school newsletters.

Parents were not consulted about the additional planning time. Lyons said that's because the union felt it was a "nonissue" for most people.

She said parents who pick their kids up at school should be able to do it two hours early once a month. And after-school and day care programs will likely adjust to the new schedule, Lyons said.

"That's not really our issue," she said, referring to child care.

Dexter Johnson, director of child care services for the Tampa Metropolitan YMCA, said his organization would accommodate the monthly early dismissal, and said parents would not have to pay for the extra hours.

The Y serves about 1,950 students in its after-school programs around the county, Johnson said.

For direction, Faliero said the district will likely look to other school systems that already have a similar early dismissal plan in place.

• • •

One is Manatee County, where students get out two hours early once a week. The plan was implemented last year, and administrators there say it's a success.

Manatee students are dismissed 90 minutes early every Wednesday. Thirty minutes was added to the other four school days, meaning students gained half an hour of instruction each week, said Herb Tschappat, assistant superintendent of Manatee County Schools.

Tschappat said administrators talked to area day-care providers before the weekly early dismissal was implemented.

"That was a real necessary step," Tschappat said. "We didn't want to throw the community into turmoil over child care."

Manatee did the early dismissal on a trial basis in three elementary schools during the 2006-2007 school year, then expanded it districtwide last school year.

The plan was presented at school advisory council meetings and parents were informed through school newsletters ahead of time, Tschappat said.

He said there was little complaint when the early dismissal expanded to all schools.

"Everybody just adjusted," he said.

Illianez Chaves, parent of a third-grader and a fourth-grader at Clark Elementary in New Tampa, isn't sure it'll be that easy.

"I work three days out of the week because I have to be home to pick up my kids,'' she said. "After-school programs at school are all full and there's a waiting list. The other ones are so expensive.

"This is going to be so hard for us."

Times staff writer Dong-Phuong Nguyen contributed to this report. Jan Wesner can be reached at jwesner@sptimes.com or (813) 661-2439.

Hillsborough County students to soon get a short day each month 09/20/08 [Last modified: Thursday, September 25, 2008 11:45am]
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