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Proposed school start times would force Hillsborough families to adjust

A proposal to change bell times at Hillsborough County schools would keep some buses from being chronically late, officials say. [SKIP O’ROURKE   |   Times]
A proposal to change bell times at Hillsborough County schools would keep some buses from being chronically late, officials say. [SKIP O’ROURKE | Times]
Published Apr. 5, 2017

TAMPA — School days will be 15 minutes longer for elementary students and 20 to 30 minutes shorter for middle and high school students under a schedule change that will go before the Hillsborough County School Board for an April 25 vote.

The district released the proposed bell schedules, along with a long letter to parents that described its focus group process, shortly before Tuesday's board meeting.

The new schedule establishes one of the goals suggested by Gibson Consulting Group, which is examining the district's finances: Bus runs would be at least an hour apart, enabling drivers to serve three schools each and saving the district about $2.7 million a year.

But it also asks traditional high school students to report to their first class at 7:15 a.m. — 18 minutes earlier than this year — which runs counter to studies about teenage sleep patterns.

"I question whether the health and well-being of our high schoolers is being seriously considered," Robinson High School parent Mark Shellabarger told the School Board on Tuesday.

The plan starts the middle school day at 9:30 a.m., an adjustment families will have to make in a year when thousands are also losing bus transportation.

The hours represent bus times but not a precise measure of instructional time, which will be affected by factors such as passing time between classes.

District leaders, in their letter to parents and staffers, made the case that they solicited input from many adults and children in their focus group sessions. A total of 1,310 people took part in the sessions: 227 students, 930 employees and 153 parents.

With the help of a paid public relations firm, the district also posted video statements from high school children who approved of the earlier start and shorter day because of their after-school activity schedules.

The report, however, showed the community is divided on some elements of the plan. "Concerns about transportation, child care, getting to work, and timely access to information were most commonly cited," the report said.

Some highlights:

• The proposed later elementary start time of 8:35 a.m. for most schools will allow children to be at bus stops in daylight hours. But parents who drive their children to school might have trouble getting to work on time. And some worry about the later dismissal for middle school, which would have children arriving home after dark some days.

• Teachers worry they will have less instructional time. But they look forward to having more planning time.

• Parents will be hit with higher child care costs if they must drop off their children early. Teachers are asking if they can get child care for free.

• Some parents say it will be easier to get their children to multiple schools with schedules that are spread further apart, while others said the staggered hours would interfere with their work schedule.

• Middle school attendance is already a challenge with a start time of 9 a.m.; it could be even worse at 9:30. The later the school day, the harder it is for students to stay focused. And traffic becomes heavier.

Speaking at Tuesday's board meeting, superintendent Jeff Eakins acknowledged that spacing out bus schedules is one of the recommendations of the Gibson firm, which the district hired in 2015 to look for ways to save money.

But he said a bigger issue is the logistical challenge of getting students to school on time when only 27 minutes separate the high school from the elementary school start time. Because of that setup, he said, some buses are chronically late.

"This is an issue about equity," Eakins said. "If we're robbing minutes of instruction from our students, then we have to do something different."

Marlene Sokol can be reached at (813) 226-3356 or msokol@tampa­bay.com. Follow @marlenesokol.