School year will start early in 2002
By MONIQUE FIELDS
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 17, 2000
Pinellas County schools will open far later in the summer than those in neighboring counties next year, but they will catch up in 2002.
The Pinellas County School Board shied away from moving up the first day of school to early August next year after parents said it would conflict with planned vacations and summer camp schedules. Now, parents have about 18 months to get used to the idea of school opening two weeks early for students.
In 2002, school bells will ring in the school year on Aug. 7 and signal the end of the year on May 21, 2003.
"There should be no reason a year-and-a-half notice is not enough," Superintendent Howard Hinesley said.
In the name of better test scores, school districts across the state are adjusting their calendars to give students more time to prepare for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, which is given in February and March to students in grades 3-10.
And Pinellas County, which opened its schools later than any other district in the Tampa Bay area this year, doesn't want to be left behind.
"We are in competition, whether we like it or not, with their results," said School Board member Jane Gallucci.
Besides test scores, Pinellas County is also competing for teachers.
Some fear the county's late start gives other districts the upper hand in attracting talented teachers as a nationwide teacher shortage continues.
An early start also means an early paycheck, which teachers gladly welcome.
"When you have gone the whole summer without a paycheck (or) you have someone fresh out of college, two weeks makes a difference," said Laura Leveroos, a speech and language pathologist at Dunedin High School who served on the district's calendar committee.
Teachers, especially those teaching high school students, overwhelmingly support the calendar change.
The new calendar gives them enough time in the first semester to administer final exams before the winter break, affording them more time to focus on the FCAT when school resumes in January.
But even that comes under scrutiny. Some parents would prefer their children receive a good education and take a test, not learn about something because it's on the test.
"Instead of using it as a tool to teach our children, we are teaching our children to be able to pass the FCAT," said Brenda Skipp, president of the Parent Teacher Student Association at Largo High School.
Some high school students, meanwhile, aren't sure what to think about the new calendar.
Their summers are just as crammed as the school year, leaving little free time.
Megan Miller, a ninth-grader at Largo High, uses the time each summer to visit her father in Louisville, Ky., where she participates on a swim team.
"I might get less time with him," she said.
Still, Megan and her peers welcome the idea of taking their final exams before Christmas.
"It actually gives me more time to chill," said Bryan Diaz, a sophomore at Largo High School.
The possible gains aren't as clear for elementary and middle school students and teachers.
Opening school earlier means the county's youngest students could spend more time in the August sun because most elementary schools don't have gymnasiums. Some, however, do have covered courts.
"It's 95 degrees and kids can't make it through 15 minutes of activities," said Judy Fay, a physical education teacher at Highland Lakes Elementary School and a member of the calendar committee.
That's only part of the problem, she said.
"Everybody's worried about kids being out there for 30 minutes, but nobody is looking out for the PE teachers who will be out there five hours a day," Fay said.
Teachers also fear that elementary school parents will not be prepared to bring their children to school so early, especially those who move to Florida from northern states, where school often starts after Labor Day.
"They fear kids will come in as much as four weeks behind," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association and a member of the calendar committee.
As far as the FCAT is concerned, it's hard to tell whether the earlier calendar will help elementary school students.
"I think it's a moot point for elementary school," said Teri Ulm, the mother of third- and fifth-graders at Bauder Elementary School in Seminole. "I don't think it will fix anything."
Ulm is also concerned the time students gain for test preparation will be lost if they are dismissed from school before their test scores arrive.
As students progress, they are more likely to gain from the extra time, parents and teachers say.
Some middle school teachers require their students to complete final exams, as high school teachers do. If so, they also would be able to complete them before the winter break, freeing up more time in January to focus on preparation for the FCAT, said Terry Hall, a seventh-grade math teacher at Meadowlawn Middle School.
It may be a year before Pinellas County administrators know the real impact of calendar changes in other school districts, but Pinellas isn't going to sit back and wait for the outcome.
"More and more districts .T.T. are starting earlier," Hinesley lamented. "We'll probably be the only district in the Tampa Bay area with what will be a late start" next year.
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