The Pinellas school district is in a fine mess over school hours, including its decision to dismiss classes early on Wednesdays this fall. Parents had little or no time to weigh in, and the practical implications of the changes — such as the effect on afterschool programs — were poorly addressed. And now, after already voting on these changes, some School Board members want to take a second look.
This is no way to run a school district. Parents should have been consulted early on and their views given weight. With consideration of even more significant changes to school hours in a few months, district officials need to learn from this controversy and do a better job of addressing concerns of parents, students and teachers before they vote.
The teachers' union and district negotiators agreed on a new contract last month that lengthened the school day by 15 minutes four days a week and shortened it by an hour on Wednesdays to give teachers time to plan. The deal met with lukewarm support from the teachers, who approved it 55 percent to 45 percent, and the School Board, which approved it 4-3. Now the board, hearing from unhappy parents and teachers, wants to include the early-release question in future bargaining sessions. It seems a bit late to address concerns that should have been dealt with before the contract was approved.
School officials will soon consider bigger, but more defensible, changes to school hours. Pinellas ran more than 700 bus routes this year. That number could drop by 150 or even 200 next school year, saving $11 million and allowing more flexibility for opening bells. For 2010-11, busing probably still will require high schools and middle schools to start about an hour apart. But high schools could open at 7:45 instead of 7:05, for example, and middle schools could start at 8:45 instead of 9:30. Both would be huge improvements.
Science suggests high school should start latest of all, as adolescents aren't sleepy until 11 p.m. But there are competing reasons for an early start — afterschool jobs, athletics, and the acceptance of the schedule that once seemed bizarre. That's just one reason why a full and open public debate will be important.
The school district did not do that this spring. To standardize more elementary school start times this fall, the district moved several elementary schools from a 7:45 a.m. start to 8:35 a.m. to conform with most others. While that makes sense, parents felt left out of the loop.
That can't happen again. New school start times affect the rhythm of family life and how students learn. A vigorous, open debate will lead to the best result for the majority. The district will soon have a rare chance to make a substantial improvement in the quality of students' lives. It's important to take the time and effort to get it right.