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    School choice puzzles parents

    The choice hotline has fielded more than a hundred calls a day from parents, but some questions do not yet have answers.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 31, 2002

    The letter sent to Pinellas County School District families last week provided pages of information about a new school choice plan.

    It also confused many parents and school administrators and reminded officials of how complicated the plan will be for the school district to carry out.

    The choice hotline (588-5000, open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.) has gotten steady business since it opened last week, said choice plan director Jim Madden. Last week, the hotline was getting about 100 calls a day. This week, it has been more.

    The questions have been all over the place:

    Am I reading this right? If I don't want my grandfathered school, when do I apply to something else? How do I get into a magnet program?

    Pat Archibald, magnet coordinator at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg, has fielded numerous calls from parents who don't understand what choice will mean to them.

    Although she has met regularly with district officials about choice, she doesn't know all the nuances to answer every question.

    "I know there's a real tendency among human beings to just do nothing when they're confused," Archibald said. "I hope that people really start taking this seriously soon."

    The choice plan, reached as part of a settlement to end a 1964 federal desegregation lawsuit, begins in 2003. But parents will begin making their choices this fall. In January, the district will let parents know the results of a computer application process.

    The letter was meant to be a heads-up that parents will have paperwork to fill out in August. It explained rules for choice and outlined where students have guaranteed slots in elementary, middle and high school.

    That's been one source of confusion.

    Cassandra Clear Holt's two daughters attend Lakeview Fundamental Elementary School in St. Petersburg. Currently, as long as they successfully complete Lakeview, they are assured seats in a fundamental middle school.

    The letter doesn't say that. The letter for Holt's older daughter, Sierra, says she can go to Bay Point Middle School. Holt has called the choice hotline but gotten through.

    Sierra is assured a space at a fundamental middle school; that won't change during choice. Similarly, students in elementary magnet programs with clear tracks to middle school programs will not be affected.

    The process for applying to countywide magnet and fundamental schools will also be quite different.

    Right now, parents can apply to more than one program and a computer processes the applications. Depending on the lottery number, a student can be invited to attend more than one program. The student then has time to pick.

    But under choice, a family can apply to attend up to five magnets and fundamentals and five schools closer to home.

    Some questions can't be answered yet because some details haven't been worked out. For instance, the district is still deciding how waiting lists will work. Officials expect to have answers to most questions by July 1, when family education and information centers open in St. Petersburg and Clearwater.

    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.

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