Bell schedules may change in a big way for at least seven Osceola County schools in August.
The School Board is considering a proposal to adjust start and release times to save the district money and get students to school on time.
The proposal, which goes up for a vote Feb. 19, is estimated to save $2.2 to $2.5 million annually in busing costs, according to transportation officials.
The change would significantly impact NeoCity Academy, Osceola High School, New Beginnings, Neptune Middle, St. Cloud Middle, Bellalago Academy and Denn John Middle.
It would also tweak times for other schools by 10 to 20 minutes, including Osceola School for the Arts. Celebration K-8 School would see a 35-minute adjustment.
Neighboring counties already practice a staggered three-tier bell schedule system, where high schools begin first around 7:30 a.m., followed by elementary schools at 8:30 a.m. and finally middle schools around 9:20 a.m.
Each school would continue operating a seven-hour school day.
The idea is to create a district-wide standard that gives bus drivers enough time to make multiple trips and get students to school on time.
Spacing high school, elementary and middle school times an hour apart helps conserve resources and make routes more efficient, said Osceola County School District Transportation Director Arby Creach.
“When we control bell times, it gives us the ability to multi-trip buses,” he said.
Creach, who has worked as a transportation director in Polk and Orange counties, said Osceola County’s random bell schedules are logistically challenging.
Ideally, a bus should be able to service three schools, Creach said. Osceola County is averaging 2.1 to 2.2 schools, which means higher costs.
“We want to try and get that number up to 2.6 or 2.7,” he said.
Bus drivers already get paid for six hours of work a day, even if they work less, Creach said.
“We might as well utilize those resources since we’re already paying for them,” he said.
Changes could also shorten average bus trip lengths for students and save additional money by reducing overtime costs for drivers who have been short-handed for over two years.
School board members discusses whether making high schoolers get to class before 7:30 a.m. is wise, since some research shows teenagers need more sleep.
It’s traditionally been the model, according to Superintendent Debra Pace, because teens often have after-school jobs, need to take care of younger siblings or have athletic events that require longer travel time.
“When I was principal at Poinciana High, we began at 8:45 a.m. and experienced significant issues,” Pace said. “When we switched to an earlier start time…it didn’t increase the number of tardies or absences.”
Parents and principals have met at impacted schools in recent weeks to discuss the possible changes.
But not everyone thinks it’s a good idea.
Three parents spoke out against the change at a Feb. 5 school board meeting, saying that later middle school start times will be difficult on working parents.
“The two-hour proposal is really going to throw me for a loop,” said Celebration resident Amy Wood.
Wood said she takes her kids to school when her husband is away on business. Since they live less than two miles from the school, her children aren’t eligible to ride a bus.
The proposal would create a two-hour gap between pick-up and drop-off times for her youngest and oldest child, which doesn’t bode well with her work schedule.
“There has to be a different solution that benefits all of us,” Wood said.
Incorporating more before- and after- school programs is being explored for parents like Wood, Pace said at the January workshop.
The programs can pay for themselves if at least 20 students are enrolled at each school and parents pay $30 a week for the service, Pace said. Sliding-scale options would be available, but more students would need to sign up to make the programs cost effective.
“People in the other six counties figured out how to manage it,” said School Board Chairman Clarence Thacker Jan. 29, referring to neighboring counties that operate a nearly identical schedule as the Osceola proposal. “So, while change is hard, I think we can get through some of that.”
The proposal goes before the school board for a vote Feb. 19.