TAMPA — The Hillsborough County School District's plan to change school hours, intended to save money and get more students to school on time, is running into strong opposition from parents with a range concerns, including how the proposal would affect their family schedules.
A review of more than 400 emails sent to the district last week at the invitation of superintendent Jeff Eakins showed comments running against the plan by a margin of four to one compared with those in favor.
"An earlier start time for high school students is an absolute non-starter," wrote Nelson Potter, concerned that the opening bell for high school will be moved from 7:33 a.m. to 7:15 a.m.
Jennifer Crow felt the same about the middle school day, which would end at 4:25 p.m., 10 minutes later than this year. "As it is, my daughter gets home at almost 5 p.m.," she wrote.
The findings should not be considered an accurate measure of opinion, as people who are against the new schedule are naturally more motivated to write in.
Despite the remarks, district officials say their early focus groups showed more acceptance of the plan that is scheduled for a School Board vote on April 25.
"I'm listening. That is why the recommended changes are a proposal at this time," Eakins said Monday.
Restating his reasons for changing the times, he stressed the need to correct a system that has too many students arriving late to school.
"We know our current bell schedule does not meet the needs of all of our students," Eakins said. "We need to ensure they are not missing valuable instructional time due to late buses."
While the idea for a schedule change originated in a cost-cutting report by the Gibson Consulting Group, district leaders in recent weeks have touted other benefits, including more art, music and physical education for younger children and more planning time for teachers of all ages.
"The students that we talked to, at Sickles (High School) and in general seemed to be very excited about getting out of school earlier so they could do what they needed to do after school," district spokeswoman Tanya Arja said.
But parents and some students said the early start will further deprive teens of needed sleep.
The emails revealed common themes among families who are contemplating changes in their routines when school resumes on Aug. 10.
Many opposed start times that would be 35 to 50 minutes later than this year at most elementary schools, citing disruption to their morning schedules.
"I've organized my personal and work-life around the current bell schedule, which allows me to drop off my son at school every morning at 7:30 a.m.," wrote Lejla Mehicic, a single parent whose child is in fourth grade at Deer Park Elementary in Citrus Park.
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"He has breakfast at school and he is never late for class. I've even made it a point to secure a residence close enough to his school, so that we could maintain this schedule every day and I could still get to work on time."
Others said a later dismissal will make it harder for them to arrange doctor's appointments and after-school activities.
Some high school parents said they felt insulted by Eakins' statement that the proposed schedule — which dismisses students at 2:10 p.m., nearly an hour earlier than the current schedule — will help students with after-school jobs.
"What is more important — time in school or after-school activities?" wrote Naomi Mizell. "Especially jobs, really?"
Complaints also came from parents of magnet school children, who are now on street corners at 6 a.m. or earlier, waiting for buses and transfers. As magnet schools of all levels track with the schedules of early-starting high schools, the fear is that these journeys will begin even earlier.
"I mentor two third grade boys at Lockhart Elementary School," wrote Leslie Scalley. "Currently, they catch the bus at 6 or 6:15 a.m. for school, which starts at 8:20." Under the proposed 7:35 a.m. start time for the magnet, "they will be walking to the bus stop, in the dark, and then waiting there, in the dark, every single school day," with siblings as young as 5 years old.
WHAT IT MEANS
Here's what the proposed bell schedule would mean for each school in Hillsborough County:
That concern, however, could be moot for many students. A newly released fact sheet from the district estimates more than a third of the early buses will be able to pick up students on their current schedules. The rest will change by only five to seven minutes. "Our goal is to make sure no one is picked up before 5 a.m.," the document said.
The emails included complaints about the focus group process, and the fact that the public was not informed of the proposed schedule changes until March — even though the district began to work on them in September.
Those emails favoring the changes were typically brief, such as this note from Ashleigh Kemp in Tampa Palms: "I don't see any problem with the revised bell schedule. Thank you for your consultation with parents."
A few took the opportunity to comment on other issues, such as student nutrition and the need for Spanish-language classes. More than one said the district should do away with early release days on Monday, which create planning time for teachers.
And there were dozens who did not state a preference, but asked questions, typically about the availability of childcare in the early morning hours.
Arja said the district plans to offer the HOST program for before- and after-school care at any location that needs it in the morning, and to find donors to subsidize the fees as needed.
The Tampa Bay Times is publishing a sampling of the parent letters in the online version of this article along with the full list of bell times, which is also available on the school district website.
Eakins said he is taking all the comments into consideration.
"We are asking for feedback to help shape the final recommendation, based in part, on the information we are receiving," he said.
The new schedule, if approved, would resemble the one now in use in Pinellas County. There, students begin high school at 7:05 a.m. — 10 minutes earlier than the planned time for Hillsborough. Elementary school in Pinellas, with some exceptions, starts at 8:35 a.m. and middle school starts at 9:30 a.m., identical to the proposed time in Hillsborough.
In Pasco County, school begins as early as 7:25 a.m. for Wiregrass High and as late as 9:40 a.m. for many elementary schools.
The district will continue to take comments at firstname.lastname@example.org until the board vote, and afterwards.
While Gibson Consulting recommended a change in bell times to save the district $2.7 million a year, Eakins insists cost is not the primary reason. Rather, he said last week, it is an attempt to correct an ill-designed system that has some buses arriving chronically late.
"This is an issue about equity," Eakins told the School Board. "Every single one of our elementary students should be arriving on time and getting the maximum minutes for school. Currently that is not happening in Hillsborough County. We are robbing minutes of our students, of quality instructional time, and we have to do something different."
If the schedule is approved, district officials said they will send post cards out during the summer advising families of the new bus schedules.
Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 810-5068 or email@example.com. Follow @marlenesokol