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Hillsborough proposes starting high school at 8:30 a.m., elementary school at 7:40 a.m.

As the busing system makes it necessary to coordinate magnet schools with high schools, those programs were suffering under the old system, with children waiting at the bus stops well before sunrise. [SKIP O'ROURKE | Times]
Published Oct. 10, 2017

TAMPA — A new plan for public school times in Hillsborough County seeks to ease sleep deprivation for high school students and put magnet programs on more attractive schedules.

If adopted by the School Board next week, it will save money and cut down on late buses, officials said Tuesday.

And, unlike last year's rushed effort to change school schedules, it follows months of surveys, emails and face-to-face conversations with students, teachers and parents.

"The board pushed me to look for more ways to garner input," superintendent Jeff Eakins said as he unveiled a plan that would flip elementary with high school start times.

"We are responding to our community and listening to what you are telling us," he said.

Under the plan elementary school will run from 7:40 a.m. to 1:55 p.m., high school from 8:30 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. and middle school from 9:25 a.m. to 4:20 p.m.

Magnet schools will be open from 8:45 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. for the elementary grades, and 8:30 a.m. to 3:25 p.m. for middle and high schools.

That's about an hour later than the current system for magnets, which has buses picking students up as early as 5 a.m. "This may also help more families consider magnet options," Eakins said.

The changes would take effect at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. Parents are advised to check the district website for individual schools, as some will vary.

TODAY'S GRADEBOOK PODCAST: How Hillsborough came up with its new school bell times

The schedule, which was celebrated on social media, is not universally popular — no plan could be. And there were some complaints about 35 minutes that would be cut from the high school day.

But it aligns with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics, which is concerned about adolescent sleep needs. And it acknowledges studies such as one from Columbia University that linked inadequate sleep to obesity. Other research on teen sleep habits warns of impaired judgment and unsafe driving.

Immediately, Tuesday's announcement raised a question: If a large, complex district like Hillsborough could pull off a switch to later high school start times, could neighboring districts do it too?

Pasco superintendent Kurt Browning said he was too busy with other matters to discuss it. Pinellas superintendent Mike Grego said his district is studying bus schedules. But at this point, he did not know how he could push back the 7:05 a.m. high school start without making all schools start later.

The move in Hillsborough will require some adjustments.

To save money, the district had planned to end most bus rides within two miles of a school, a practice known as courtesy busing, for elementary students.

That plan is on hold for at least a year as parents adjust to the earlier hours, Eakins said.

High schools will have to shave two or three minutes from each period in order to continue a seven-class schedule, which students enjoy because they can take more electives, college and remedial courses. Lunch and passing times between classes will likely be affected.

The district also will need more after-school care at the elementary schools, which will dismiss 20 minutes earlier; and before-school care at the middle schools, which will start 25 minutes later.

But in many ways, Eakins said, the plan makes things easier.

Schools that the state has designated for extra reading time can stay open a half hour later without running up against the high school bus runs, as the two will now be separated by 90 minutes.

Eakins also revised his prior thinking on the need for many high school students to be dismissed in time for their part time jobs.

There probably will not be much difference, he said, as under the current system, students spend so much time waiting for buses that are late.

Eakins has argued all along that the change was not just about saving $2.7 million a year in making more efficient use of the bus fleet, but about students' need for a full day of school.

With just 30 minutes separating the high school and elementary school morning runs, he has argued, too many young children are starting their day late.

"No longer can this superintendent put his head on the pillow at night, knowing that 12,000 students are going to be late the next day," he said.

In fact, to sell the public on the need for a change, district officials adopted the mantra, "every student deserves a full day."

The district's campaign comes in sharp contrast to the previous year's efforts, in which committees met for six months before disclosing their plans to the public in the spring.

That earlier schedule would have started high school at 7:15 a.m. Parents were furious about the times, the late notice, and the secrecy.

This time, district leaders sought input through a simulator that allowed users to design schedules, and an online survey in English and Spanish. Reminders were emailed to parents in a deliberate attempt to get a large response.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Gradebook podcast — Why don't more Florida high schools start classes at 9 a.m.?

Eakins said a schedule similar to the one that is now proposed was the overwhelming favorite.

"But I will tell you, there has been nothing about this process that has been easy," he said.

"This is impacting millions of people — not just the parents and the students, this is impacting everyone."

The district is still taking feedback on the proposal in advance of the Tuesday board meeting. Those with concerns can send emails to bellschedule@sdhc.k12.fl.us.

Times Staff Writers Colleen Wright and Jeffrey S. Solochek contributed to this report. Contact Marlene Sokol at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampabay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.

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