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Osceola District looks for solutions to early school start times

Posted on Wednesday, September 9, 2015 at 12:52 pm

By Ken Jackson
Staff Writer
Nearly all Osceola County high school students must get out of bed before sunrise, and many of them have to catch their bus in the dark as well, to be on time for the bell for first period, which rings around 7 a.m.
It’s a problem — parents see it, teachers see it and school administrators see it — so School District officials at the Sept. 1 School Board meeting came up with some ideas to possibly address the topic next year after being tasked by board members.
The biggest issue is transportation. With the number of school buses the district has at its disposal, it must triple-run nearly all of them, meaning each bus and driver has an elementary, middle and high school route, said Mark Munas, assistant superintendent for Support Services.
Munas presented a list of four ideas to change schedules.
“This is not an exhaustive list, but we’re not pushing any one of them either,” he said.
The first,  simply swapping high school and middle school start times, would cost little money but would affect high school athletic practices and games.
“It’s going to impact athletics. Changing time tables is very doable, there are issues we can work through,” Munas said.
Board Member Ricky Booth questioned whether, under that plan, the conversation would come up about sending middle school students to bus stops in the dark.
Plan No. 2 simply shifted all school schedules 30 minutes, 45 minutes or up to an hour later. Again, high school practices and games would be affected, and it brings the new concern of children getting off the bus in the dark for part of the winter.
Plan No. 3 involves eliminating the triple-routing of buses and having high schools on a later time of their own. An estimate Board Member Kelvin Soto requested about changing the routes and adding buses just for Liberty High School came to $5.6 million for more buses and drivers. District Superintendent Melba Luciano said she would be having a meeting soon with Rep. Alan Grayson (D-Orlando), who wanted those figures to see if he could help earmark funding.
The fourth option, which Luciano said came from her own out-of-the-box thinking, would be to take an hour out of the school day, start later and extend the school year 30 days into the summer. Downsides to that would be the affect on the hours and salaries for 10-month teachers and support staff contracts. “Mr. Soto told me to think outside the box,” Luciano said. “When I possibly mentioned the extended year, Mr. Munas took a deep breath, because we experienced this (year-round schools) years ago. These four ideas are probably just the beginning.”
Board Member Jay Wheeler, who’s son is a freshman at Celebration High School, noted that Osceola High School begins at 8:20 a.m., and called having first period start a hour before that “an hour of teaching lost.”
“No teenager is a morning person. Give them another half-hour or hour and it could make a world of difference later in the day,” he said. “The science is sound, we can give these teenagers a shot at better health and education and improved grades.”
Soto said the challenge is worth taking on.
“When I see these alternatives and these numbers, I realize it’s going to be challenging to do this and change this,” he said. “Change is difficult. But it’s important enough for us to try. We have to consider if students should be out that early.”