tampabay.com

Schools might revise start times

A possible shakeup of bus routes could mean later start times for high schoolers - but earlier first bells for elementary students.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN and DONNA WINCHESTER
Published November 9, 2005


LARGO - Pinellas school schedules would change dramatically under a new plan that would end pre-dawn wake-ups for high school students but force many elementary school students to rise earlier.

The favored scenario devised by Laidlaw Planning Solutions calls for high schools to start at 9:15 a.m. or 9:20 a.m. and for most elementary schools to start about 7:30 a.m.

A smaller number of elementaries would start at 8:15 a.m. and most middle schools would start at the same time as high schools. Four middle schools would start about 7:30 a.m.

A handful of schools with students at risk for dropping out would start at 10 or 10:30 a.m.

The district commissioned Laidlaw this summer to study the district's bus routes with an eye toward cutting routes, saving money and changing the current 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools, which many consider too early.

"I'm usually asleep by fourth period," said Natalie Katzman, a 15-year-old student at Osceola High, who now rises at 5 a.m. and would welcome change.

Brittany Brady, an Osceola freshman, said she would prefer to sleep in. So would her mother.

"It's hard for her to get me up," Brady said.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox cautioned that the proposal is preliminary. He gave copies of Laidlaw's report to the School Board on Tuesday, and board members will discuss it at a workshop next week.

Start times are linked to bus routes because 56 percent of the district's students qualify for a bus ride.

Any change in times would be "a huge undertaking," Wilcox said, and would have to be enacted by the end of January. The period to apply for schools under the choice plan begins in February, and many parents consider start times when they shop for schools.

"The board may simply say there are too many challenges (to do it) in a year," Wilcox said. "My hope will be that we could accelerate and go."

School boards typically do not like to tamper with start times because families' needs are so varied. As Wilcox put it: "For every person who says there's an advantage, there's going to be somebody else who says it's going to be a disadvantage."

Still, he said, the district has heard from scores of parents who are weary of having their teens rise well before dawn to get to school.

But parts of the Laidlaw proposal are sure to be controversial. For example, it relies in part on efficiencies achieved by placing middle school students on buses with high school students.

At present, the district does not mix different age groups on buses.

Wilcox said the district would cut costs by shaving 360,000 miles a year off bus routes and would use the savings to put adult monitors on buses.

"All across the country, kids (of different ages) are riding buses together," he argued. "But I know there are some people who will struggle with it."

He said he also anticipates worries about elementary school children having to wait in the dark for buses if the proposal were enacted.

But he said elementary school students were more likely to have an adult at the bus stop with them. Another possible concern: The proposal relies in part on a hub system for students who live especially far from their magnet schools and high school academies. In the morning, those students would be bused to a "hub school," transferred to another bus, then driven to their regular school. The reverse would occur in the afternoon.

Wilcox said students at fundamental schools would be offered transportation on arterial routes. He said he did not favor allowing fundamental schools, which now receive no bus service, to opt out of the transportation system.

A product of the choice plan, the 7:05 a.m. first bell is the earliest in the Tampa Bay region. Some families abhor it; others like it because it gives students more time for jobs and extracurricular activities.

The proposed start time would put the end of the high school day at about 3:45 p.m.; the earliest dismissal now is 1:32 p.m.

Reaction from several quarters was mixed.

"Academically, it's probably better," said Dunedin High football coach Mark Everett. "You have to remember, out of a school of 2,400, I have 30 players. So selfishly, yes, it could be tough, with kids getting out of practice at 7:30, 8 (p.m.) But I see why they're doing it and I support anything they do to improve the academic side."

Barry Brown, assistant principal for athletics at St. Petersburg High, predicted "minimal impact" if the changes are approved.

"It may even be a great thing for the kids, because it will mean morning practices," he said.

Jaclynn Brockway, a 17-year-old senior at Osceola, said she likes starting school early and is glad a change wouldn't occur before she graduates. Brockway said she is looking for a job and likes the idea of being able to make money by 2:30 p.m.

Teresa Watkins, a parent, said she wants the schedule to stay the same. While she said she sympathizes with the plight of sleep-deprived students, she has planned her work schedule around taking her 15-year-old daughter Jessica to school. A later start time would mean an overhaul of her morning, she said.

Aside from the early wake-up call, the district has a whopping 2-hour, 40-minute gap between middle and high school start times. That gap presents a scheduling issue for families with children at both levels. Also, educators say it is sometimes difficult for ninth graders to adjust after three years of starting middle school at 9:45 a.m.

High school start times have been an issue since the early 1990s, when researchers found that teens have significantly different sleep and waking patterns than adults and preadolescents.

Because of their chemical makeup, many teens don't feel sleepy until after 11 p.m. but still must rise before dawn for school, leading to sleep deficits. Exactly how those deficits impact school work is open to debate.

Not long ago, a change in bus routes was thought to be far too expensive for Pinellas, requiring millions of dollars for more buses and drivers. So far, the only cost has been $122,000 spent for the study by Laidlaw, a division of the giant school transit company, Laidlaw Education Services. A second contract would be needed to have Laidlaw plot bus routes, Wilcox said.

"It shows we can think differently about transportation," he said. "It's a huge first step but that's what it is - a first step."

Times staff writer John C. Cotey contributed to this report.