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School time switch? Never mind

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox withdraws a plan to start high schools later, elementaries earlier when support dries up.

Published December 6, 2005

Start times for Pinellas County schools will not be changing after all.

School superintendent Clayton Wilcox on Monday withdrew a controversial plan to overhaul school schedules next year, saying opposition to the plan was too strong.

"Clearly we serve the community, and we can't provide a service that people don't want," said Wilcox, who planned to spread word of his decision Monday night in automated calls to 112,000 households in the district.

Asked whether he planned to revisit the issue, Wilcox said: "Not unless the board and the community ask me to. ... The community clearly has spoken to me."

The decision ended a move that appeared at one point to have solid support.

Parents had long complained about the 7:05 a.m. start time for high schools, many citing research that shows teenage students do not get enough sleep. Five of seven board members liked the new plan enough at a Nov. 15 workshop to tell Wilcox to come back with more information.

Developed by a national consultant, the plan was placed on a fast track for a Dec. 13 vote. The idea was that if new times were approved they would be in place when parents begin to select schools under the choice plan in February.

But a vigorous public backlash reversed the tide. High school students and parents of elementary school children were particularly vocal.

"It was obvious that this plan was not going to work," said School Board member Linda Lerner.

Board members received hundreds of e-mails, calls and personal appeals. Wilcox elicited more than 1,400 responses on the blog he hosts on the St. Petersburg Times Web site.

A Times poll published Sunday found that 74 percent of elementary school parents favored the current elementary start times, most of which fall between 8:30 a.m. and 9 a.m. Only 20 percent liked the consultant's proposal to start elementaries at 7:30 a.m.

Offering reasons for their answers, half of the elementary school parents polled said a 7:30 a.m. start time would cause young children to wake too early. More than 20 percent said the new time would not fit their work schedules.

Separate from the poll, School Board members had expressed concern that the early time would force small children to wait for buses in the dark.

Another finding in the poll: Fifty-six percent of high school parents favored the current start time of 7:05 a.m. for their kids, while only 34 percent preferred the proposal to start classes at 9:15 a.m. Seventy percent of them cited afterschool jobs and other activities as the reason they liked the current start time.

At present, high school students are dismissed between 1:30 p.m. and 1:50 p.m. Under the proposed change, students would not have been dismissed until after 3 p.m. - too late, many said, to cram in activities, jobs and homework.

Wilcox said the Times poll was the "last straw" leading to his decision. He said it validated what the school district had been hearing from other sources.

The poll sampled 617 Pinellas parents and had an error margin of plus or minus 4 points. The sample was 77 percent white, 12 percent black, 4 percent Hispanic and 6 percent people of other ethnicities. Seventy-three percent of the respondents were women.

The School Board was to debate the plan at its workshop today but now will turn to other issues. Wilcox made an 11th-hour effort to preserve the plan, asking his transportation department to crunch numbers over the weekend.

The department tried to compress the time between the early morning wave of buses and a wave that runs closer to midmorning. Doing that, Wilcox said, might have resulted in more palatable starting times for elementary and high school students.

In the end, he said, there was no room in the schedule to make the changes and still be able to deliver more than 40,000 students every morning, more or less on time.

[Last modified December 6, 2005, 09:17:58]

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