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    First day of school may come sooner

    Returning in early August as some other districts do would allow more prep time for state tests. The county is looking for comments on the idea.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


    Don't make your summer vacation plans just yet: Pinellas County is considering opening schools much earlier next year.

    District officials are shopping around three proposed calendars for the 2001-2002 school year. One starts the year on Aug. 8. Another starts Aug. 9, and the last is similar to this year, with a proposed Aug. 22 opening.

    This year, Pinellas schools opened Aug. 23 -- far later than any other district in Tampa Bay. Hillsborough opened Aug. 9, and Pasco, Hernando and Citrus schools opened Aug. 14.

    Districts all over the state, including Pasco and Hernando this year, are bringing students back to school sooner. Most cite the state's standardized tests in February -- and the increasing pressure to perform well on them -- as the reason to get students studying as soon as possible.

    And if everybody else is doing it, Pinellas doesn't want to fall behind.

    "Whether we like it or not, comparisons are made," said Judith Westfall, the district's associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction. "Our students would be disadvantaged by not having more instruction before the exam."

    Ron Stone, the district's spokesman who is in charge of the calendar committee, said preparing for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test isn't the only reason to start in early August. The change also would end first semester before the winter holidays -- a bonus for students who now have to return from the holidays and immediately prepare for first-semester finals.

    Wrapping up the semester before the winter holiday would be much less stressful for students, said Celeste Callahan, who serves on the calendar committee representing the County Council of PTAs.

    "As a parent, I think it's good," Callahan said. "I have also talked to parents in Orange County where they have done this, and it has worked out beautifully with them."

    Of course, an earlier start also means an earlier end. Starting at the beginning of August means finishing before Memorial Day, around May 22.

    Schools received copies of the three calendar choices this week. The district wants feedback from teachers, parents, students and administrators before making a recommendation to the School Board. On a related matter, the district also wants to know whether spring break should be changed from the week before Easter to the week after.

    Officials aren't sure how much support they will get. Several years ago, an early August start was floated. Middle and high schools liked it; elementary school advocates did not.

    The board will vote on the 2001-2002 calendar on Dec. 12.

    Lou Kubler, a teacher at St. Petersburg High School, acknowledges some academic benefits of starting -- and ending -- the year sooner. But he worries that the community won't have enough time for comments before the School Board considers the new calendar.

    Many companies schedule vacations for mid-August, Kubler said. What about teachers who already have summer jobs lined up? What about summer camps that already have their calendars set?

    He suggested that if the calendar is going to move up, it be done for the 2002-2003 school year rather than the 2001-2002 year. That would give parents, teachers and local businesses enough time to adjust.

    "We have to make sure what we're doing is in tune with the entire community," Kubler said. "We already have kids who don't come in until after Labor Day."

    Indeed, the first year of an earlier start could be hairy.

    The summer would be shorter. Summer school would bump up against the first day of the regular year. The district's three extended-year elementary schools -- Frontier, Maximo and Gulfport -- would only have about a week between the end of one year and the beginning of another.

    But school officials say those inconveniences would be temporary and well worth it in the long run.

    "It would make sense to have that additional instructional time," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "Two weeks is a pretty significant amount of time."

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