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Parents' pleas may resuscitate drivers education day classes

A majority of the Hernando School Board may vote to keep the daytime courses, after parents blast the decision to end them.

By ROBERT KING

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


Drivers education may not have run out of gas yet.

A month ago, the School Board tentatively agreed to eliminate driver training programs from high school day classes next year. They said it was costly, consumed valuable class time and could be left to after-school classes or summer school.

Given the reaction, one might think the board proposed to do away with American history classes.

In his two years as a School Board member, Robert Wiggins said, no other issue has prompted so many phone calls and comments -- almost all from parents who say drivers education must stay. Other board members have heard the comments, too. They've also been reading the letters to the editor that have appeared in local newspapers. Subsequently, it now seems drivers education has enough votes on the five-member board to survive.

Wiggins, who had been sitting on the fence or even leaning toward eliminating drivers education, now says he likely will vote in favor of the program, in keeping with the public will.

Gail Coleman, who opposed drivers education last month, said she had assumed most parents teach their children to drive. But since the board's meeting on March 13, parents have been telling her how much they rely on drivers education classes to do that job.

So, along with John Druzbick, who defended the program during last month's meeting, it appears that three members now support drivers education.

Board Chairman Jim Malcolm hasn't wavered. He still opposes drivers education during the regular school day. So does Sandra Nicholson, who said she has received feedback from people on both sides of the issue but continues to believe that drivers ed should not be offered as a day course. She also believes students do not get enough behind-the-wheel training in the current classes.

The School Board is scheduled to settle the matter Tuesday night during a meeting that begins at 7 p.m. at the district office in Brooksville.

Simple classes, skills, savings and shorter lines

For students at the county's three public high schools, drivers education is one of the most popular electives on the class schedule. It draws more than a thousand students a year. There is often a waiting list to get in.

Part of the popularity stems from the widely held view that drivers education is easy.

Even some adults -- most notably board member Druzbick -- said that is not a bad thing. In a world where the academic bar seems to get higher every year, they say it is probably good for students to have at least one class that is not a backbreaker.

Beyond that, proponents of drivers education say the program provides a valuable service to teen drivers and the driving public at large. It teaches teenagers a skill. And after all, they contend, isn't that what schools are about?

"We are teaching these kids a skill that's going to last a lifetime and that everybody uses," said Vic Cervizzi, a drivers education teacher at Central High School. "There are (other) things we teach in school that not everybody uses."

Parents, it seems, are often too busy or too impatient to teach their children to drive. And some contend that parents -- who themselves may speed, whip through tight traffic or otherwise drive like the back seat is on fire -- aren't always the best instructors.

"We have parents who say they want kids in driver ed because 'You are professionals, and we want our kids to do it right,' " Cervizzi said.

Financially, the drivers education program offers several advantages for families.

The high school programs, which last one semester, take care of the five-hour drug, alcohol and traffic education program that is mandated by the state in order to get a driver's license. To take that course elsewhere would cost students $25 to $30.

More lucrative are the price breaks that some insurance companies offer students who complete the class. The amount of savings varies with the policy, but it is a discount that can remain in place for years.

In most cases, the high school instructors are also certified to administer the paper and road tests needed for permits and licenses. The students still need to take an eye exam, get their picture taken and pay $20 at the local driver's license office.

According to Ellen Boyt, who manages the Brooksville office, students who get everything else done through school do not have to stand in line to see her staff. And that means shorter lines for everyone.

Malcolm, the School Board chairman, said he believes drivers education is a good program, even though he has seen no research to show it produces better drivers than when kids learn to drive elsewhere.

It is just that he is convinced that it doesn't belong in the regular school day, that it shouldn't count as a credit for graduation and that it shouldn't be free.

Teach driving the correct way or don't do it at all

Malcolm used to teach drivers education in Rhode Island. It cost students $15 for 30 hours of instruction. Road training was handled by private companies.

"I think that program is an excellent program," he said.

Malcolm has been a vocal opponent of "fluff" courses in high schools. His current list of such classes includes weightlifting; a class he has nicknamed "office gofer" because students answer school phones and run errands; and, now, drivers education.

"I've often said that I'm more in favor of core curriculum courses leading up to a high school diploma," he said. "I am no less critical of other electives we offer."

Drivers education doesn't come cheap. Each class requires both a teacher and an aide, since someone must supervise the students who aren't on the road. Staffing alone costs about $189,000 a year. That doesn't count the costs of fueling and maintaining the minivans used at each high school.

And not everyone is convinced that drivers education is doing a good job.

Sal Russo, owner of Spring Hill-based Sureway Driving School, says parents frequently bring him the children who have gone through drivers education classes in a county school yet still don't know how to drive.

Cervizzi and fellow drivers education instructor Vernon Turner said most students get at least five or six hours drive time. But some may see less. Partly, that is to blame on students missing school or being pulled out of class to be remediated in core subjects such as math or reading, Cervizzi said.

Admittedly, Russo wouldn't mind seeing the School Board eliminate drivers education. It would boost his business, enough that he might add two more cars and two more drivers.

If the high school programs remain, Russo said they should be improved.

"If they are going to do it," he said, "do it right."

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