LARGO - At four Pinellas elementary schools stuck for years with a late starting time, midafternoon was not the best part of the day.
By 2 p.m., most young schoolchildren across the county were on their way home or within an hour of being dismissed. But at Cypress Woods, Ridgecrest, Starkey and Walsingham elementaries, where the school day started at the leisurely hour of 9:40 a.m., it was time for weary young bodies to buckle down and slog on. Nearly two hours would pass before the 3:40 p.m. closing bell.
"Two o'clock was the time when the kids started showing fatigue," said William Nordmark, principal at Walsingham. "When kids get up at 6 a.m., it's a long day."
Some teachers would not introduce new material after 2 p.m., said Laura Coggin, president of the Cypress Woods PTA. "They knew the children were just wiped out."
Now parents and educators can put those days in the past. The school district announced Thursday that the four schools will be placed into the earliest part of the bus schedule, pushing their opening times two hours earlier.
The change affects nearly 3,000 students, shifting the largest part of the teaching day to the morning.
"Every teacher in Pinellas County really wants that morning time," said Starkey principal Ken MacKenzie. "They feel that's when the kids can learn the best."
Said Sharon Sisco, principal at Cypress Woods: "It's a good thing for our children. I am so excited. ... One of my teachers said, "Oh, my gosh. I'll be able to teach after 1:30.' "
The impact also will be felt at home. With a school day that got some children home at 5 p.m. or later, there was limited time for homework, dinner, downtime with the family and after-school activities such as soccer, gymnastics or music lessons. Now those students will be out of school before 2 p.m.
"My philosophy is I can even put my children to bed earlier," Coggin said.
Not everyone will like the change. Sisco said some Cypress Woods parents had successfully planned their lives around the later starting time and will have to adjust. At Starkey, MacKenzie said the new schedule will mean a much earlier bus ride for the St. Petersburg students who were bused to the Seminole school for desegregation but elected to stay there under the choice plan.
The vast majority of families will welcome the change, the principals said.
The four schools were the among biggest losers when the School Board voted on a new bus schedule in May. The bus system will be particularly taxed this year with the start of the choice plan, which allowed families to choose schools far from their neighborhoods. As a result, bus routes will be more scattered and thousands more kids will need rides.
The board toyed with major adjustments, such as moving high school starting times to nearly 10 a.m., but settled on a plan that kept change to a minimum.
The decision hammered the four schools. In addition to keeping them on the tail end of the schedule, it moved their starting times even later. Three of the schools were slated to start at 10 a.m., and Starkey was penciled in at 10:20 a.m.
"I just went crazy," said MacKenzie, the Starkey principal, who got the news while on vacation.
The board, however, gave the schools some hope, telling route planners to do their best to work them into an earlier time slot.
In the ensuing weeks, as the complicated new bus scheme came together, route planners were able to accommodate the schools, said Terry Palmer, director of transportation for the district. He said the board's decision to cancel bus service for fundamental schools helped, freeing up about 25 buses.
"We really felt they would be able to change it, but we just didn't know if they were going to be able to do it this late," Sisco said. The school year starts Aug. 5.
Under the new schedule, Cypress Woods in Palm Harbor will start the day at 7:55 a.m. and end at 1:55 p.m. Ridgecrest, Starkey and Walsingham - all mid county schools in Seminole and Largo - will begin at 7:45 a.m. and end at 1:45 p.m.
Families will get notice of bus routes and bus stops in the mail next week. The information also will be available starting Tuesday on the district's Web site.