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High schools' start: 7:05 a.m.

In a decision driven by the county bus schedule, high schools will open earlier. Others will change slightly or not at all.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published May 29, 2003

photo
[Times photos: Chris Zuppa]
Jamie Espinoza of Palm Harbor grows weary at 1:09 a.m. Wednesday as School Board members voice their opinions about changing the start times of schools in the district. She has four children: three in Pinellas schools and one infant.
School Board member Jane Gallucci appears tired at 12:31 a.m. Wednesday while listening to members of the public comment on shifting the start times of schools in the Pinellas district.

Faced with public fatigue over the choice system and a backlash over later school starting times, the Pinellas School Board opted early Wednesday to minimize scheduling changes for next year.

High schools will open 15 minutes earlier at 7:05 a.m. Middle schools will open five minutes later at 9:45 a.m. And most elementary schools will start between 7:45 a.m. and 9 a.m. as they have for years.

The board's 5-2 vote came at 1:30 a.m., after a six-hour public hearing that included more than 120 speakers, many of whom rejected a proposed 9:55 a.m. start time at high schools.

Three board members had supported the idea, which sprang from research showing that most teens suffer from a lack of sleep and might perform better if allowed to start high school later.

But parents, students, teachers and coaches complained the later start times would end the day well after 4 p.m., interfering with after-school jobs, athletic events, band practices, theater rehearsals, homework, dinner and family time.

Deciding on a 7:05 a.m. start for high schools effectively pushed the entire bus schedule back 15 minutes, enabling middle and elementary schools to start the day a bit earlier than two other proposals allowed.

Board members sought to appease as many people as possible in a district with more than 110,000 students attending 144 schools. But their vote left many parents angry.

They were bound by a three-tiered schedule that gets two waves of buses to schools by about 9 a.m. but leaves an unfortunate few in a third wave arriving about 10 a.m.

Caught in the dreaded "third tier" for yet another year were middle schoolers whose parents complained that the late start leaves their children weary in the late afternoon and unwatched in the morning when adults must leave home for jobs.

Also left to the third tier were four elementary schools - Cypress Woods, Ridgecrest, Starkey and Walsingham. All have wanted out of the third tier for years.

Asked by several in the overflow crowd to find a better way, the board directed administrators to explore two options for the future. The first: Hire a private company to run part of the bus system. The second: Approach the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the county's public bus agency, about ways to help transport high school students.

In one sense, the vote was a victory for high school students, said Carla Webster, a theater arts teacher at Palm Harbor University High who had cautioned the board against the 9:55 a.m. start time.

But it certainly had its downside.

"7:05 is a horrible time; 10 a.m. is a horrible time," she said. "It's kind of nuts, but I don't think they had much choice."

Among high school students and parents, reaction was mixed.

"I don't like it," said Tiffany Ensminger, 15, who will be a junior this fall at Northeast High School. "I already have to get up at 5. It's too much. It's too early to start the day."

Cathy Naabe, the mother of a graduating senior at Lakewood High in St. Petersburg, lobbied the board Tuesday against the 9:55 a.m. start. That the board went even earlier than the current start time would not have affected her son, she said.

"When school kicks in he adjusts," Naabe said. "He just deals with it."

Among the students who will deal with it most are North Pinellas students who attend Lakewood's popular Center for Advanced Technologies magnet program.

For years, they have faced a bus ride that began at 5:30 a.m. Now it will start 15 minutes earlier.

School officials told parents from the four elementary schools still mired in the third tier that they will work to get them an earlier start time by late summer, but they offered no promises. Parents were hopeful, but not optimistic.

"As much as my gut tells me these people have a very tough job on the School Board, the other part of me went: "Planning. Did anyone foresee this?' " said Alicia Bright, who has children in two of the affected schools, Cypress Woods and Ridgecrest.

Bright and others representing both schools lobbied the board for an earlier time, saying the bus schedule has forced Ridgecrest to start at 9:40 a.m. for eight years. Cypress Woods, they said, has started at 9:40 a.m. for three years and was supposed to be rotated off that schedule.

Instead, both opening times could be as late as 9:55 a.m. Parents questioned why other schools can't be asked to share the burden.

"I want to say they cared," Bright said of the School Board. "But the path of least resistance is what they went with instead of making it work. . . . I can't understand how, countywide, they left four schools out."

Bright's situation is representative of many families who begged the board for a time change. Her 9-year-old son, Kenny, and 6-year-old daughter, Kirby, rise before 7 a.m. at their Palm Harbor home and must wait to go to school.

Kenny is off on a bus to Ridgecrest at 8:40 a.m.; Kirby catches her bus to Cypress Woods by 9:05 a.m. The schedule gives Bright just enough time to make it to work at a Clearwater mortgage company by 9:25 a.m. The later school start time would delay her arrival at work to about 9:45 a.m.

"That's not fair to my employer," she said.

Afternoons are tight as well, with Little League, homework and other activities.

"It's a dance trying to make everything flow," she said. "You need that extra 20 to 30 minutes to make it work."

How they voted

By a vote of 5-2, Pinellas School Board members chose 7:05 a.m. as the start time for high schools.

Here's how they voted:

Lee Benjamin

Called 10 a.m. start time a "disaster." Said 7:05 a.m. was a compromise that pushed middle school time 15 minutes earlier.

Nancy Bostock

Preferred 7:20 a.m., but compromised at 7:05 a.m.

Mary Brown

First board member to embrace 7:05 a.m. two weeks ago. "Not ideal," she said, but best met the needs of most families.

Carol Cook

All things considered, 7:05 a.m. schedule the most palatable option.

Jane Gallucci

Strong advocate of 10 a.m. start, but settled on 7:05 a.m. because it pushed middle school start time earlier.

Linda Lerner

Said the board lacked enough information to make a good decision

Mary Russell

Didn't like any of the options, but leaned toward 10 a.m. start time.

Start times

The Pinellas School Board's decision to move high school start time to 7:05 a.m. has sparked controversy. Here are high school start times for other area school districts:

Hillsborough County:

High school start time ranges from 7:25 a.m. to 7:35 a.m.

Pasco County

High school start time ranges from 7:40 a.m. to 8:40 a.m.

Citrus County:

High school start time ranges from 7:41 a.m. to 7:50 a.m.

Hernando County

High school start time ranges from 7:38 a.m. to 8 a.m.

- Source: Local school districts

[Last modified May 29, 2003, 05:28:42]


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