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Early start for two schools points to changes for all

The A in Gov. Jeb Bush's A+ plan for education is taking on a new meaning _ acceleration.

Two Hernando County schools, Hernando High and Parrott Middle, want the School Board to advance the start of the school year by two weeks beginning in 2000 to better prepare students for midyear standardized achievement tests.

The School Board should instruct superintendcent John Sanders to implement a pilot program for those two schools, with an eye toward making it a districtwide calendar.

Teachers have reacted coolly to the idea, despite the fact that two-thirds of Florida's school districts start earlier than Hernando.

But the proposed earlier start is one of the consequences of the accountability standards established in Tallahassee. With so much emphasis on test scores, most school districts want as many pretest teaching days as possible. Starting earlier also would bring the semester to an end before Christmas vacation.

Time on task is a fact of life for educators. The more time children spend reading, writing and working on mathematics skills, the better they learn to read, write and do math. With the measurement of how well children are learning slated for midyear, districts need any edge they can gain.

While summer school scheduling also accounts for a desire to alter the school calendar, achievement test scores are the dominant motivation.

Some counties in the Panhandle began school Monday, more than two weeks before Hernando schoolchildren return to the classroom Aug. 18. The school calendar is established by local school boards, but there is no flexibility as to when students take the achievement tests in January and February.

The change will be an initial inconvenience _ shorter summer vacations for teachers and students until the final calendar is set. It also means other programs tied to the school district's summer vacation, such as the county recreation department's summer camp schedule, most likely will need adjusting.

But, such concerns are trivial considering the potential consequences _ low-rated schools and the accompanying stigma, plus the long-term possibility of vouchers taking students, and state financial aid, to the private sector from chronically failing schools.

The accountability standards, which for most schools fail to consider student mobility rates, children living in poverty and other demographic information, are flawed. But it is futile for districts to disregard the emphasis on test scores.

As a way to improve students' performances, and to introduce parents and teachers to the coming reality of a longer school year, the School Board should not hesitate to move ahead with the pilot programs at Hernando High and Parrott Middle schools.