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    Educators take a short course on choice plan

    A two-hour workshop on choice in the Pinellas County School District aims to recruit principals to sell the idea to parents.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published June 11, 2002

    LARGO -- Eighty school administrators bent over a worksheet Monday, answering true or false to 20 questions. The topic: Pinellas County's new choice plan.

    During a two-hour training session at district headquarters, principals and other administrators found out that they know more than they thought.

    But they still have questions: Where will special education programs be? How will the district reach incoming kindergarteners?

    "You think you have all the answers, then someone comes in and says . . . ," said Sandy Lane Elementary principal Anthony Reidy, indicating a blank to fill in. "Then you give them a number to call."

    Beginning this week and through the fall, choice plan managers will hold training sessions for administrators, School Board members, front office staff members and parents.

    For the most part, Monday's session was a factual refresher course about how the choice plan works, how parents will choose schools this fall and how schools should market themselves. The plan begins in 2003-2004.

    But the goal was also to enlist principals' help in selling choice. Since the School Board approved the plan in October 2000, many parents have made clear they don't like choice, don't understand choice and want no part of choice.

    "One of the things we haven't spent enough time on in talking to parents is talking about the benefits of the choice plan," said Jim Madden, one of the administrators in charge of the choice plan. "Anything you could do in this area would be helpful."

    After going through the county's desegregation history, Madden explained some nuances and glitches of choice. One related to extended grandfathering, the privilege that allows students who have lived in the same house since June 6, 2001, to skip choice and finish their currently zoned elementary, middle and high schools.

    District officials recently discovered that any minor changes in a student's personal information record -- such as "Road" to "Rd." -- was recorded as a change in address. So some parents recently got letters from the district saying they are not eligible for extended grandfathering even though they are.

    Officials are working on a fix.

    Principals asked Madden more than a dozen questions. They included: How is "minority" defined in the choice plan: just black and nonblack, or all minorities? And how does the district know how many spaces are available in a given school?

    Brooker Creek Elementary principal Nell Chapman is worried about a practical problem: The choice plan requires that she attract about 11 percent black students. Right now, her Tarpon Springs school has 8 percent. She's not sure how she will lure the rest.

    "We're going to send a letter," Chapman said. "We had a meeting in the community, but we didn't get much response."

    Reidy of Sandy Lane is worried about getting all of his parents to fill out their applications on time.

    Sharon Sisco, principal of Cypress Woods Elementary, has questions about transportation.

    Cypress Woods has Focus on Achievement Night and Family Fun Night. But Sisco worries that public transportation doesn't run as far north as her school. So she doesn't know how parents without cars would stay involved if they choose Cypress Woods.

    Jean Eubanks, principal of Eisenhower Elementary School, recently realized her biggest challenge. Because she knows education and not marketing, she doesn't yet have an answer.

    "We assume all parents will want to stay. What about the parents who are on the fence?" she asked. "It's not something we've really been trained for. It's a whole new way of thinking."

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