In Pinellas County schools, busing demands determine school start times. The priorities should be reversed. The situation is complicated by the district’s array of choice programs and the task of shuttling kids to them, sometimes from opposite ends of the county. These are quality-of-life issues that families care deeply about, and district leaders should focus on duplicating popular magnet programs throughout the county as they work to simplify the bus system, devise a reasonable bell schedule and provide the best opportunities for the most students.
High school students in Pinellas start their day at 7:05 a.m., despite widely accepted research that says teenagers are naturally inclined to stay awake later and would perform better academically on a schedule that conforms better to their body clocks. But Pinellas has determined not to put high school students on buses with younger children for safety reasons and to start elementary school later so youngsters aren’t waiting at bus stops in the dark. Combine those factors with a chronic bus driver shortage and Pinellas County’s rush hour traffic, and that means running buses for more hours in the mornings. No doubt it’s a complex web of needs to be met.
But only about 30 percent of Pinellas’ 100,000 students ride the bus. Even among students who attend one of the district’s 70 choice programs, just 7,500 use the bus to get to a school outside their zone. It makes no sense that a system most students don’t even use is dictating everyone’s schedules. And it’s not even necessarily serving the bus riders well. Kashif Haynes, a freshman at Tarpon Springs High, is an extreme example of both the opportunity and the sacrifice involved. Profiled by the Tampa Bay Times’ Colleen Wright, Kashif rides two hours on the bus each way from his home in south St. Petersburg to attend the district’s only magnet program for veterinary science. The 14-year-old’s determination is commendable, but attending the program of his choice shouldn’t be that hard.
This month, School Board members are set to consider moving back high school start times beginning next fall. The district has said 7:30 a.m. is the best it can do, though Hillsborough County, with far more students, managed to push its first bell back to 8:30 a.m. Pinellas is also awaiting data on which choice programs are most successful and in demand. The School Board should consider that information in tandem, putting resources into duplicating the best programs and making them more widely accessible — which hopefully would ease some demands on busing. Guidance counselors have a key role as well, ensuring families are aware of all their options and steering kids toward the program best suited for them. That may mean one closer to home.
District leaders and School Board members should prioritize making magnet programs more accessible and creating a bell schedule that best facilitates learning. While there are no easy answers to the logistics of busing thousands of kids around Pinellas every day, it’s a flawed approach to make those interests secondary to a transportation system that most students don’t use.