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Private schools follow own path, reopen

Published Aug. 28, 2005

When public schools close, so do private schools. That's long been a rule of thumb.

But with many Tampa Bay area public school districts racking up weather emergencies this year, some private schools have decided to go their own way.

Several administrators said Tuesday they are rethinking their policies on days off.

Mary Jo Murphy, spokeswoman for the Diocese of St. Petersburg, said an advisory board will meet soon.

"They're going to review this procedure to see if perhaps some sort of change needs to be made," she said.

Pinellas, Hillsborough and Pasco county schools closed Tuesday after Jeanne's weekend sweep through the area left widespread power outages, leaky roofs and scattered tree limbs on campuses.

Most classes were canceled because some schools in each county had no electricity. But several private schools _ unaffected by the storm _ saw no reason to shut down, including all but 10 of the Diocese's 52 schools in five counties.

"We are fine," said Robin Kennedy, director of communications at Tampa Preparatory School, which opened Tuesday after using a phone service to call its 600 students. "We have no reason, really, to be closed."

At St. Petersburg's Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School, director Holly Carlson checked out the school Monday, determined it was safe and called parents.

On Tuesday, only 2 percent of the school's students were absent.

"Everyone seemed very happy to be here," Carlson said.

Even before Hillsborough decided to resume classes today, Bayshore Christian School in Tampa chose to open, not wanting to put parents in a bind.

About 10 people worked in the office Tuesday calling the parents of the school's 430 students.

"We have a great many working families," said head Donna Brooks. "I am certain they have had a difficult time with child care."

Officials with local private schools said the practice of copying public schools worked well until a wave of hurricanes began blasting the state six weeks ago.

In several instances, particularly with Frances and Ivan, local public schools closed to become shelters for out-of-county evacuees. The private schools, however, were not used as shelters.

"This is a unique year," said Colleen Brady, president of the Academy of the Holy Names in Tampa.

Mimicking public schools lessens confusion in families with children in both systems, while also simplifying the process of telling parents about closings, administrators said.

Still, the notion of empty schools on sunny days has irritated some parents, who pay up to $9,000 per child in tuition.

Susan Smith, president of the Mother's Association at the Academy of the Holy Names, said a handful of parents yelled at her when they heard the school was going to be closed again Tuesday.

"It's really hard to say what's right," said Smith, who worried about teens driving through debris to school.

Some private schools said they used their smaller size to guide them in straying from the public schools.

At 320-student Academy at the Lakes in Land O'Lakes, director of advancement Joanne Rock said the decision to reopen Tuesday with short notice shows the flexibility in being a self-contained institution.

"We're our own school board," Rock said.

Same for the Renaissance Academy in New Port Richey.

"The parents were just very thankful to have things return to as normal as possible," executive director Janine Caffrey said.

Some schools decided earlier than most to depart from the public school path.

The Indian Rocks Christian Schools in Largo opened both Monday and Tuesday, ignoring Pinellas County's two-day closing.

The school had electricity, the roads were relatively clear, and superintendent Don Mayes said he wanted to get the children back into the classroom.

"A sense of routine and normalcy can help students get through," he said.

Times staff writers Barbara Behrendt, Rebecca Catalanello and Donna Winchester contributed to this report. Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or