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    A parent's primer on choice

    Parents will soon get their homework for the school choice process.

    School officials are sending parents a "heads up" letter this week.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 22, 2002

    A message to parents who thought Pinellas County's school choice plan was far in the future: Watch your mailbox.

    Choice is here.

    This week, the Pinellas County School district is mailing more than 100,000 letters -- 80 legal-sized boxes worth -- to let parents know about upcoming deadlines and required paperwork to choose schools for the 2003-04 school year.

    The letter will explain whether students are eligible for extended grandfathering, which allows them to forgo the choice plan and continue to attend the zoned elementary, middle and high schools they would have attended.

    The envelope also is stuffed with an information packet -- what amounts to a choice plan Cliffs Notes. It details how waiting lists will work, what happens to students in special programs or situations and how many charter schools are available.

    It even lists definitions of key words.

    If all that is not enough, the packet explains where to go or whom to call for more information. (The number for the Choice Plan Help Desk will be 727-588-5000; the desk will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.)

    The idea is not to overwhelm parents with information but to help them prepare for some big decisions this fall.

    It's also to let parents know that if they sit out this process, the school district will make the choice for them.

    "Here's a heads-up," said Andrea Zahn, the marketing coordinator for choice. "Be aware that choice is coming."

    The choice plan, which will replace traditional neighborhood zoning, was the result of a settlement in a decades-old federal desegregation case. The district will be divided into attendance areas: four for elementary, three for middle and one for high school. Families will fill out applications, naming five schools in their area that would meet their children's needs.

    For the first four years, the district will continue to require racial diversity in schools. After that, district officials hope that parents will choose to keep schools integrated on their own.

    In crafting the choice plan, the district gave certain students priority to attend their top-choice schools. For instance, students who live close to a school have a better shot at getting in than someone 5 miles away.

    With all of the rules and all of the programs students attend, the plan affects different students in different ways. The district had to write 12 versions of the letter: one for students with special attendance permits, one for students in satellite zones, and so on.

    The district could get as many as 7 percent of the letters back. In Pinellas, families tend to move around a lot, so this mass mailing will help the district track down parents whose official addresses are no longer current.

    What should parents do now?

    Certainly not panic, district officials said. Call your child's school if any information in the letter is wrong. Family information centers will open in July: one at PTEC St. Petersburg and the other at the former Robinson Challenge school in Clearwater. In August, the district will send out a "declaration of intent" form, asking parents whether they intend to keep their children in their current schools.

    The open choice process will begin Sept. 16 and end Dec. 13.

    "They don't have to do anything right now," said Jim Madden, choice plan director. "But all parents will have to do something."

    Choice dates to remember

    In the fall, Pinellas County parents will choose their children's schools for 2003-2004. The deadlines are firm: If a parent doesn't return the required forms on time, the school district will assign a student to a school in his attendance area where space is available.

    July 1 -- Family education and information centers will open in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

    August -- Parents will receive in the mail a "declaration of intent" form, asking whether they want their children to remain in their current schools.

    Sept. 16 -- Open choice process begins.

    Oct. 1 -- Deadline for returning "declaration of intent" forms.

    Dec. 13 -- Deadline for filing out choice application.

    January 2003 -- Parents will find out where their children will attend school in 2003-2004.

    Choice Plan Help Desk: 588-5000

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