By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Most School Board members support later start times for high schools and earlier ones for elementaries. A vote is Dec. 13.
LARGO - A majority of the Pinellas School Board gave an enthusiastic thumbs up Tuesday to a plan that would start high school classes later in the morning and elementary schools earlier.
Five of the seven board members favored the idea at a workshop, setting up a final vote at the board's regular meeting Dec. 13.
If approved, the new start times would take effect next school year, altering daily routines for thousands of public school families. Most board members said the potential benefits make the change worth it.
Among the advantages: an end to predawn bus pickups for Pinellas high school students, many of whom struggle to stay awake in morning classes. The earliest pickup this year is about 4:50 a.m.
One of the drawbacks for many families would be earlier rising times for elementary school students. However, bus pickups would not be nearly as early as the current high school pickups. Most would likely occur between 6:30 a.m. and 7:00 a.m.
District officials acknowledged that any change in start times likely will affect some families adversely. But school superintendent Clayton Wilcox said relatively few people have complained since the plan was made public last week.
Many who oppose the plan are from families with students in high school, he said. Many who favor it have younger students who will enter high school over the next few years.
Wilcox took the input as an indication that most people like the plan. "I think a lot of folks are saying, "Do this thing,"' he told the board.
The plan, devised by a national consultant, outlines a variety of scenarios. But the one favored by most officials would move high school start times from 7:05 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. or 9:20 a.m.
Most elementary schools would start at 7:30 a.m. next year but about 20 would start at 8:15 a.m. Most elementaries now start the day at 8:40 or 8:50 a.m.
The first bell at most middle schools would be the same time as high schools - not a big change from the current middle school start time of 9:45 a.m. A handful of middle schools would start at 7:30 a.m.
Dismissal times would range from about 2 p.m. for elementaries to about 3:45 p.m. for high schools and most middle schools.
However, none of the times mentioned Tuesday are firm. Concerned that 7:30 a.m. might be too early to start elementary schools, some board members supported tweaking the plan.
Wilcox said he may recommend moving the proposed 7:30 a.m. start time to 7:45 a.m. or 7:55 a.m. at the board's next meeting. But that pushes the entire schedule back, meaning high schools and middle schools wouldn't start until 9:30 a.m. Dismissal would be about 4 p.m.
"If we got out at 4, I'd hate that," said St. Petersburg High student Tyler Payne, 15. "It's just not enough time for homework, sports and extracurricular activities."
The plan relies in part on the district abandoning its current practice of scheduling separate bus routes for all three school levels. On some routes, middle and high school students would ride together.
The plan was submitted by Laidlaw Planning Solutions, which began studying the district's bus route system this summer. Wilcox said he commissioned the study hoping to streamline bus routes and save money. But as Laidlaw's work progressed, he said it became clear the district could also solve the problem of early high school start times.
Pinellas has the earliest high school start time in the Tampa Bay area, a result of the choice plan, which took effect in 2003.
School Board members Janet Clark, Carol Cook, Jane Gallucci, Linda Lerner and Mary Russell said they supported the proposal or some version close to it. Nancy Bostock and Mary Brown opposed it.
Brown said she feared starting elementaries at 7:30 a.m. would disrupt too many family schedules.
"I'm not a morning person," said Regenia Burke, whose children attend Melrose Elementary in St. Petersburg. "I think day care opens at 6, so it should be all right. But I don't like the idea at all."
Bostock said she saw no gain from shifting another group of students to the early time slot. "Our elementary school kids need their sleep every bit as much as our high school kids," she said.
According to researchers, teenage body clocks differ from those in children or adults. Teens don't feel like sleeping until after 11 p.m. but still must rise before dawn for school, leading to sleep deficits.
A widely noted research project several years ago in Minnesota found improvements after high school start times moved from 7:15 a.m. to 8:40 a.m. Principals noticed better attendance and calmer hallways. Parents got along better with their teens. But the findings were anecdotal.
More empirical studies found no marked improvement in student achievement, and debate over start times continues across the nation.
"People are still going to sleep in class because that's what they choose to do," said Jasmyne Smith, a 16-year-old sophomore at St. Petersburg High. "If they change the hours to 9 or whatever, kids are going to stay up later."
Wilcox said the Laidlaw plan has benefits beyond altering the day for teens.
He said it offers fewer bus routes, which would save fuel and reduce wear on buses. Drivers would work eight hours instead of 10, leading to higher job satisfaction and an easing of the driver shortage that currently hampers the bus system. All told, the change could save the district as much as $500,000 a year, Wilcox said.
He also said the plan's more efficient routing would lessen the problem of late buses. As of Tuesday, his staff said, as many as 5 percent of Pinellas bus trips arrive late to schools, a figure some board members found shocking.
Said Cook: "The way we're doing it (now) is not working."
Other issues to be sorted out include high school lunch periods, which typically occur at the end of the school day because dismissals are from 1:30 p.m. to 1:50 p.m.
Another issue will be how to stage after-school activities. Individual students may have to adjust work schedules.
"Every family has their story," said Gallucci, who asked the public "to keep in mind the perspective that we're busing 50,000 kids."
Wilcox said he didn't envy board members for having to make the decision. But he offered advice.
"You make the best decision for kids," he told them. "Then you suffer the slings and arrows of the few or the many."
Times staff writer Vanessa De La Torre contributed to this report.