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High schoolers, don't reset alarm yet

School officials, considering starting high school classes a bit later, are still evaluating feedback from the community.

Sleepy students who want high school to start later will have to wait a little longer to see whether relief is on their schedules.

The Pinellas School District is plowing through a whopping 57,000 surveys that were returned about start times at elementary, middle and high schools. Researchers had hoped to complete their analysis by the end of January, but now a report isn't expected until mid-February.

School start times are staggered so that the same fleet of buses can pick up and drop off students at all levels. Early results of the survey make one point clear: Everyone wants to be on the first bus run _ so pleasing everyone is impossible without spending millions more on buses and drivers.

How early are people willing to wake up to get the first bus run? That's a complicated question, district officials say.

"I wish it were that simple," said Steve Iachini, the district's director of research and accountability.

Facing research that showed that high school students are naturally late risers, school officials last year decided to research whether high school should start later. Because middle and elementary school would have to be changed to accommodate a high school change, the district decided to do research at all grade levels.

More than 43,000 surveys were mailed home to middle and high school parents. More than 41,000 surveys were sent home with elementary school students. Just more than 58,000 students were given surveys, which also were provided to teachers, school support staff and administrators.

All told, the district got about 57,000 surveys back _ about 37 percent of the 155,000 sent out. District officials were pleased with the response and have been studying the data about a month.

All high schools now start at 7:20 a.m. _ 10 minutes earlier than last year, when officials decided school bus drivers needed more time between runs. Most elementaries start at 8:45 a.m. and most middle schools at 9:40 a.m.

On the anonymous survey, participants could choose among seven different schedules for elementary, middle and high schools _ the current system and six options. The survey asks for the best option, the second-best option, the worst option and the second-worst option.

"We have to consider the number of times a specific option was chosen and compare that to the number of times it was chosen last," Iachini said.

The decision to change start times won't rest on the data alone.

For one thing, many elementary school parents don't want school to start so early that their children have to wait in the dark for a bus. And not all high school students want to start late because some have after-school jobs or play on sports teams.

"I think we should find a way to start high school a little bit later if at all possible," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "There will always be a need for staggered times."

Once a report is written, it will be presented to the School Board, most likely at a workshop. In the next few months, School Board members will decide start times for the upcoming school year. A couple of board members have already said they are in favor of a later high school start.

School Board member Lee Benjamin, a former principal of Northeast High School, worries that if high school starts too much later, the district might be setting a bad example. When high school students graduate, he said, they might have to rise early for work or college classes.

"I think if we can adjust it maybe 15 to 20 minutes it would give high school kids a little more sleep," Benjamin said. "(But) the real world is you don't come in that much later."

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