Lakeland High School students leaving school on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow
Lakeland High School students leaving school on Friday, Oct. 27, 2023 | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

High school juniors and seniors could hit that snooze button a few more times or leave school early if Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid’s latest proposal — a Late Start/Early Release program — is approved.

Autumn Hawkins, 17, is a Lakeland High School junior. As she was leaving campus for her after-school job on Friday, she said she would welcome an extra hour of sleep in the morning.

“We don’t get enough sleep,” Hawkins said. “I start work at three and it’d be awesome. A lot of us have to go to work at some point right after school.”

Qualifications for the Late Start/Early Release program include:

  • Being on-track to satisfy all graduation requirements no later than their 8th semester.
  • Having a GPA of 2.0 or above in core coursework.
  • Satisfying assessment requirements for graduation — earning a passing score the Grade 10 FAST ELA and Algebra end-of-course exam or accepted alternative tests.
  • Meeting or in-progress to meet acceleration requirements.
  • Maintaining satisfactory attendance in accordance with the district’s attendance policy.
  • Accumulating no more than three late arrivals to second period per semester for students opting to enroll in the 2nd through 7th periods option.
  • Requiring no more than 12 credits if a junior or 6 credits if a senior.
  • Maintaining enrollment in an English and math course each year, per the Student Progression Plan.
  • Providing their own transportation.

The move would be in addition to the Florida Legislature’s mandated later start times, which don’t go into effect until the 2026-27 school year. The statute states that middle schools may not begin the instructional day prior to 8:00 a.m., and high schools may not begin prior to 8:30 a.m. Currently, middle schools begin at about 8:30 a.m. and high schools start at 7 a.m.

“This change in start times will also have widespread impact to students, their families and our staff,” school district spokesman Kyle Kennedy said. “Over the course of the next two years, the school district will be conducting a public awareness campaign to make stakeholders aware of this significant shift in start times, and our plans for adjusting to this state-mandated change.”

The district is also facing a huge transportation issue because the same busses are currently used for elementary, middle and high schools. Some times would overlap and more buses would need to be purchased — a massive investment the legislature hasn’t funded. One school bus can cost between $70,000 and $100,000, depending on its size.

“Big incentive for students”

Heid said he implemented a Late Start/Early Release program in Illinois when he was a superintendent there and it was highly successful.

“This is a big incentive for students,” Heid said. “Many of our students, for example, may have athletics, may have other responsibilities in the morning that allows them to come to school an hour later. For a lot of our students, as well, who are seeking employment or after-school internships and those types of things, that early dismissal option becomes far more attractive to them.”

But Heid cautioned that even though a student may have the 2.0 grade point average, they might not qualify.

“With all due respect, earning an A in P.E., but earning an F in your English language arts class should not qualify you for this program,” Heid said.

Training will be required for high school principals and assistant principals for curriculum, along with guidance counselors, to ensure they fully understand the pros and cons of participating in Late Start/Early Release or maintaining a seven-class schedule.

Interested students and a parent or guardian will be required to attend a student-parent conference and students will have to sign a contract.

Student and parent will be required to submit an application for Late Start/Early Release to their school counselor and the application must be approved and signed by the school counselor and principal.

Reduce class size

Ann Everett, PCPS’ senior director of acceleration and innovation programs, explained that this is possible because the state requires 1,500 minutes of instruction each week in order for the district to receive what known as “full-time equivalent” funding per student.  With students attending 50-minute classes, five days a week, that requirement is reached after six periods a day.

“That seventh period is actually offered at the expense of the district, because we’ve had a great opportunity to provide extra resources for our students, either for remediation, or for acceleration. And we have so many different opportunities for kids to take advantage of that,” Everett said. “Does it make sense for every student to attend school all seven periods of every single day through K through 12?”

Heid said it would also have two other benefits — it would reduce class sizes and it would free up teachers to offer other electives or required classes that are currently being served by substitute teachers.

Polk County Public Schools Superintendent Fred Heid in September 2023. | Kimberly C. Moore, LkldNow

“How are we being creative to address the issues of ensuring we have enough classroom sections and qualified teachers for all of our students?”

Superintendent Frederick Heid

In 2002, Florida voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that set limits on the number of students in core classes: 18 students in prekindergarten through 3rd grade; 22 students in 4th through 8th grades; and 25 students in 9th through 12th grades. In the years since, the Florida Legislature appropriated more than $52 billion toward operational expenses and $2.5 billion in facilities funding to implement the Class Size Amendment. But electives have no class-size restrictions and many schools have seen classes exceed the limit, particularly in recent years as Florida’s population has grown.

“It also serves the district’s interest as we continue to struggle with hiring and filling vacancies as Polk County Public Schools continues to grow,” Heid said. “And we’re seeing this as not a Polk County issue — it’s a national trend. How are we being creative to address the issues of ensuring we have enough classroom sections and qualified teachers for all of our students?”

Students opting to leave early can’t remain on campus

School Board member Lori Cunningham wanted to know if students at Harrison School For the Arts could participate, even if they have play, dance or musical rehearsals after school.

School Board member Lori Cunningham

“I want to be sure that they’re going to be taken care of, and that they have the ability to take that hour off, whether it’s to go get lunch, food, whatever, and then be allowed back,” Cunningham said. “But for those that don’t have transportation, to rely solely on the busses, that they could stay there in a safe room or someplace to study.”

Heid said students cannot be on campus when not assigned to a class.

“I want to be clear — those students would not qualify because the purpose of this is they either come to school late or they leave campus early,” Heid said. “The example you just said was looking for more of a tutoring center. We would not allow students to simply leave, grab food, and come back to school. They have, with their parents’ permission, scheduled for an abbreviated day. We will not have supervision available for them. The whole point was to free up those staff to teach other sections that are required, so those students would have to leave campus”

Heid pointed out that each high school might have up to 500 juniors and seniors who would qualify for this and there simply would not be teachers available to work with them or supervise them. But, he added, that there would be instances of teachers and administration working with students on a case-by-case basis.

For students who need to take a bus to leave early, Heid said that while most juniors and seniors drive or carpool with friends, he reminded board members that Citrus Connection, the county bus system, provides free transportation to all students and has stops in close proximity to all high schools.  

“We would just have to work with them to provide advance notice to make sure that they have route times that would be conducive for high schoolers who are trying to leave campus,” Heid said. “It doesn’t make sense to release them an hour early but know that the Citrus Connection bus doesn’t come for another hour and 45 minutes. We would have to work with them on that.”

Heid said he will be bringing the issue back to the School Board in November for further discussion and possibly a vote.

Watch the School Board discussion about the proposed Late Start/Early Release program.

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Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at or 863-272-9250.

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