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Extra Reading Hour At Holiday Hill Elementary Met With Outrage

Rhema Thompson

A lengthy evening of comments and questions in Holiday Hill Elementary School began with a question.

"How many people are here in opposition of an extra hour of school at this school? Raise your hand," a parent asked.

All but a few hands in the packed cafeteria went up.The community meeting attended by Superintendent Nikolai Vitti, School Board Member Ashley Smith-Juarez and nearly 200 concerned citizens was prompted by outrage over a district proposal to add an extra hour of reading to the school’s day.

The elementary school is among the list of 11 low-performing schools that Vitti has recommended for the longer day. That’s in addition to 40 other schools in the district required by state law to add the hour.    

"There’s a bit of shock in hearing that Holiday Hill is low-performing…I consider it fragile," Vitti said.

According to the latest statewide test scores from Florida Department of Education, roughly half of Holiday Hill students cannot read on grade level--and slightly, more than half of the school's fifth-graders are below level. The once-consistently A school is now a D.

But the district proposal, presented just weeks before the start of the school year, came under fire Tuesday.

Holiday Hill PTA President Shannon Kubisiak said the school's slipping scores had very little to do with instruction and more to do with the recent string of leadership changes.

"We’ve had five principals in the last four years. We’ve had a revolving door of leadership and we think that’s our biggest problem," she said.

Other parents feared what another change might do to the already fragile school. Several parents also expressed concern over how the longer day at school might translate into a longer evening of homework and less sleep for students.

Parents also argued that students who were high-achievers should not be required to attend another hour of instruction. A few others pointed out that afternoon traffic and sufficient teacher staffing were issues.

Vitti said his plan for the hour would involve enrichment lessons for students high-achievers.   

"If the student is dramatically low-performing we're going to focus on skill set. If they're near grade-level, we'll focus on the (Florida) standards and re-teaching of the standards," he said. "If they're significantly high-performing, well above grade-level, it will be purely enrichment."

He said that would include novel-based reading sessions and possibly, stage plays.
Teachers would have the option of working the extra hour for additional pay. So far, Vitti said about half of the school’s teachers agreed to work the additional hour, leaving several parents to wonder about how every student would receive adequate instruction.

Addressing concerns about the numerous principal changes the school has experienced over the last few years, Vitti also made a promise.

"You have my word, on camera, that I will not move the principal for at least the next three years," he said.

Vitti told parents they would still have the ability to opt out of the extra hour, but they would need to discuss the reason for doing so with the school principal.

However, it was a few words from the new principal, herself, that seemed to shift the mood of the meeting as the second hour approached.

"We’re wasting time arguing. We could be planning. We could be preparing. We could be  sharing ideas," Principal Tammy Haberman told the crowd.

The brief speech was followed by a round of applause from the audience.

That was enough to sway some parents, like Michelle Bourgholtzer. Four of Bourgholtzer's children attend the school.

"I have a kindergartner that's coming in at 5 (years old) that's going to be at school longer than I'm at school," she said, adding that she is a teacher. "But I think Ms. Haberman has a solid plan in place. If the kids aren't stuck, if they can learn through other strategies, other realms, then I think that they can have success." 

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.