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Letters deliver students' fate

Thousands have applied to magnet or fundamental programs. Now the news is on its way, and not all will get into the school they want. What will they do next?

[Times photo: Michael Rondou]
Lane Marshall, 5, will be starting kindergarten this year. Tom and Allison Marshall, her parents, have applied to three magnet programs and are awaiting word about whether she will get in. That's little sister Meredith on Mom's lap.

By LENNIE BENNETT
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 3, 2002


Good news and bad news came in the mail over the weekend for thousands of Pinellas County students.

For most, the news was bad.

Almost 10,000 letters were sent, notifying them whether they gained a coveted spot in one of the county's 23 magnet and fundamental programs or are on a wait list. With fewer than 3,000 openings, only some of the hopeful students have a sure berth.

The announcements set in motion a process that could be over in 30 days, the deadline for accepting an invitation. Or, for those with a high number on a wait list, it could last at least a year.

"We're hopeful," said Allison Marshall, whose daughter Lane, 5, has applications into the Center for the Arts and International Studies at Perkins, the Center for Advancement of the Sciences and Technology at Bay Point and the center for Communications and Mass Media at Melrose Elementary.

Regardless of the news in their letter, the Marshalls, like other parents and students, will have to make choices and decisions, will have to weigh their odds and perhaps take chances, based on the student's abilities and interests, race, the individual school and the student's grade level.

For years, fundamental schools and magnet programs have offered students alternatives to the traditional curriculum offered in Pinellas County schools. Fundamental schools have very structured programs, and emphasize student responsibility and mandatory parental involvement. Magnet programs provide specialized curriculum such as arts or technology, along with traditional studies. Many families believe the quality of education at these schools is superior and vie for places in them.

And after next year, every family aspiring to a magnet or fundamental program will have to factor in the profound changes the new Controlled Choice Plan will have on attendance in the special programs.

With controlled choice, students will no longer have a zoned school. They will have a variety of choices within a geographic area and, based on available spaces, they will choose their preferences. For the first few years, court-required racial quotas will remain, but after 2007, no quotas will be required. If families do want to make any changes, students now living in a zoned school area will be grandfathered into that school. But most of the more than 110,000 students in Pinellas County are expected to participate in the choice process, which will be much like the small fraction that now participates in the magnet and fundamental selection process. Even though thousands of letters went out this year, it's a mere fraction of what will happen next year. For the 2003-2004 school year, all students, not just those who want to attend a magnet or fundamental programs, will apply to the school they hope to attend.

Waiting out the waiting list

Last year at this time, Tristan Braboy was not among the chosen few. He applied for admission to Bay Vista, Lakeview and Pasadena Fundamental elementary schools and the magnet programs at Perkins and Melrose.

"We were turned down at all of them," said his mother, Callie Northagen. "He was 15 on the wait list at Perkins and that was as good as it got. At the others, he was 74, 89. We were disappointed."

Under the system, a student may apply to any number of magnet and fundamental schools. He has the same chance at each, so could be accepted at all or none. At each school, the student is given a number from a random lottery, which determines his place in line.

Because many students apply to several schools, the disparity between applications and openings is not as dire as the numbers indicate. After 30 days, when students accept or decline invitations, the wait list numbers can shift dramatically. And they continue to shift as families move or have changes of heart.

"By the time school started," said Tristan's father, Jamie Braboy, "we had moved to 5 on the list."

Still, he did not have a spot at any of the five special programs to which he applied so instead of enrolling Tristan in Maximo, his zoned school, the family sent him to a private school for kindergarten in August.

The odds of a child moving off a wait list at the elementary level are slight because, say school officials, the wait lists are so long and few children, once in a program at that level, leave.

For the 2002-2003 school year, Perkins had roughly 640 applications for fewer than 100 openings.

Countywide, about 3,000 applications were made to the system's nine fundamental elementary schools and magnet programs for 730 openings.

"We have about 380 on our list," said Len Kizner, principal of Bay Vista Fundamental. "We maybe take a dozen from that in a year. The chances are very slim."

Even so, the odds of admission are usually better or worse depending on the grade level in elementary schools.

"If they are 7 on the wait list at Perkins for fifth grade and are offered an invitation to another magnet school, I would recommend they take that invitation," said Perkins magnet coordinator Patricia Archibald. "They probably would not get into Perkins. But 7 for K would be a good shot. The sad thing is, we have people who are No. 1 all year and never get in."

Race, at least for the next several years, can make a difference, too. Court-ordered quotas require schools to categorize applications and openings as black and non-black. The Center for Gifted Studies at Ridgecrest Elementary, for example, has two applicants from black students for 13 openings and 80 non-black applications for 91 openings.

Under county guidelines, a school can fill the available slots for black students with non-blacks, but must give priority to qualified black student applicants as they come along. After 2007, those quotas will no longer be enforced.

Tristan Braboy beat the odds. In December, Archibald called the family to tell them a spot in kindergarten had opened up at Perkins. He transferred in January and "is doing fabulously," said his mother.

He was lucky. Archibald said this year's wait list still has more than 500 students. And few openings are expected to materialize before the end of the year.

At that point, students start all over again in the random lottery if they choose to reapply.

Higher grades, different odds

The odds of moving off a wait list improve, but only slightly, once a student moves to the middle school level.

Pinellas County has two fundamental middle schools and two magnets. For the 2002-2003 school year, about 1,800 applications were made for about 800 slots.

But because elementary programs are feeders for the middle schools, entry grade slots are sometimes filled completely by students from those feeder schools.

"This year we're not inviting anyone in theater or visual arts," said Jean Smith, magnet coordinator for John Hopkins Middle School's Center for Arts and Communication. "All our openings in those areas have been filled by students from Perkins." Students who specialize in other areas, such as an instrument, have a shot at getting in she said, but she anticipates few openings.

"We've had some withdrawal, but not many," Smith said. "I do not encourage parents to hope."

More hope in high school

Things change in high school.

The county has 10 magnet programs in eight high schools. Almost 4,000 applications have been submitted for about 1,300 openings. No slots are guaranteed, except for qualified siblings. More stringent criteria make some applicants ineligible and create tiered waiting lists that give more qualified students a better chance at admission. And students tend to move out of the programs at a higher rate.

So high school administrators are more sanguine about a student's chances of getting in, even with a high number on the wait list.

"The history over the last five or six years," said Linda McPheron, vice principal for the International Baccalaureate Program at St. Petersburg High School, "is that most qualified students who have wanted to come to the IB program at St. Petersburg High School have been able to."

Even though the school is starting the process this week with a wait list of about 300, McPheron said that number shrinks quickly.

"About 75 percent of the students who were invited came last year," she said. "And we lose students for a number of reasons. The wait list now is an inaccurate picture."

"A year ago," said Harry Brown, vice principal for the IB Program at Palm Harbor University High School, "we had a wait list of 107. By the time some had accepted at other schools, we were down to 51."

Cory Glass was an incoming freshman who hoped to receive an invitation to Palm Harbor last winter. Instead, he got the news that he was 30 on the wait list.

"It's almost like waiting to get into college," said his mother, Colleen Glass. "Getting that letter was devastating."

Mrs. Glass called the school office every week to check on the list.

"One week they'd say, "Oh, that's a great number.' The next week they'd say, "Oh you might not get in.' " she said. "It was a real roller coaster."

Four weeks into the fall semester, Cory got the call.

"We had mixed emotions," said Mrs. Glass. "Cory seemed settled in the honors classes. We let him make the decision. I knew he would want to try it."

Still hoping is the Nassar family. Hend Nasser, 14, applied last March for a spot in the IB Program at St. Petersburg High.

"She wanted it because she loves to study and wanted the challenge," said her father, George. "We were depressed when she didn't get in. We never thought she wouldn't make it. She refused to try anything else she wanted it so badly."

With the unpromising place of 66 on the wait list, she entered private school. She is now 8, a good number, but Hend will probably not gain admittance to St. Petersburg High this year because, unlike elementary and middle magnet schools that admit new students up to the last day of school, high schools stop magnet admissions after Feb. 5. And if Hend reapplies, she will start all over again with a new lottery number next fall.

With choice will come change

Making the Glass family's decision to switch to the IB Program in Palm Harbor easier, even after Cory had started school in traditional classes, was the knowledge that Palm Harbor was also Cory's zoned school. So even if the IB program does not work out, he can stay at Palm Harbor. That circumstance will change with the Choice Plan in 2003-2004 and will complicate the decision-making process even more for families.

"Under the Choice Plan," said Christine Lowry, coordinator of the magnet and fundament school programs for Pinellas County schools, "if a student leaves before completing the magnet program, they lose their grandfathering for their zoned school at that level."

After next year, under school choice, students may apply concurrently to choice schools and magnet programs. Students can be grandfathered into their former zoned schools. They will have the option of attending their first choice school while remaining on a magnet waiting list.

But if they enter a magnet program and decide not to continue, they have lost their grandfather status, are put into a general pool and assigned a school based on available space. Lowry said that rule will affect mostly high school students "because we don't have many leaving elementary or middle schools."

Under the new rules, high school students could find themselves going cross-county if the nearest schools are full because, unlike elementary and middle schools that will be organized into regional areas, the pool of high schools will be county-wide.

"I think parents and students interested in going to any magnet program will give it a closer look," said Linda McPheron of St. Petersburg High.

"Families will probably make better applications," said Lowry. "There was some security and safety in knowing you could return to your traditional zoned school."

"No one loses by not getting into a magnet," said Harry Brown of Palm Harbor High. "There are other opportunities and an education is what you make of it."

"Hend wants the IB program," said George Nassar of his daughter. "We will reapply."

-- Times staff writer Kelly Ryan Gilmer contributed to this story.

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