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    How is a parent to choose?

    It's like taking a multiple-choice test where all the answer choices are "A'. In their choice brochures, many schools sound alike.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 14, 2002

    Osceola High, Pinellas Park High, Fitzgerald Middle, San Jose Elementary and Sandy Lane Elementary have something in common.

    They're "the best-kept secret in Pinellas County."

    In the new era of school choice, Pinellas County campuses developed marketing brochures to lure families. But rather than distinguishing themselves, many schools sound alike.

    Fourteen schools say they are "family-friendly." Fifty-six say they have a "safe learning environment." Twenty-six say they are shaping "lifelong learners."

    And for all of the talk that schools would begin offering special areas of study to be competitive in the open market, about 70 schools are simply doing what they have always done. Only 30 are venturing out to try something new.

    "That was kind of the direction of the district, to be sure that each school was doing unique things," said Barbara Paonessa, principal of Boca Ciega High School, where students will be able to study popular music, aviation, athletic training, technology, computer graphics and show business.

    "We all learn better if we are doing something we enjoy and if we have a purpose," Paonessa said. "If we can really tap into student interests, student achievement will continue to rise."

    One reason for the shortage of attractor programs could be that the school system didn't offer any new cash along with its mandate. To start the program at Boca Ciega, Paonessa said she'd be seeking help from local businesses.

    School choice doesn't begin until fall 2003, but parents will make their choices this fall. The brochures, following a standard template to simplify comparison shopping, are supposed to help parents begin researching their options.

    Even though the Family Education and Information Centers set up by the school system to help are open, not all brochures are available there. There aren't any for magnet or fundamental schools, though there will be. Charter schools and dropout prevention centers aren't mentioned.

    Three schools being built in southern Pinellas -- Thurgood Marshall Middle, Jamerson Elementary and Sanderlin Elementary -- don't have brochures because they don't have principals yet.

    Andrea Zahn, the school district's marketing coordinator for choice, surveyed parents and educators about what information should be included in the brochures. As a result, all brochures include a letter from the principal, school hours, school mission, community partnerships, special services, school highlights and an "attractor statement."

    Within those categories, schools had leeway.

    Some use education lingo -- like Classroom Learning Systems or Student Achievement Model -- to describe their teaching strategies. Some describe how big their schools are or how many have teachers with advanced degrees. Some describe special education services in general, while others say whether physical and occupational therapy is available.

    The brochures were not intended to cover all details of a school's resume, but merely to whet parents' appetites, Zahn said. Schools were free to highlight what they thought was important and omit what they didn't.

    As for attractors, officials have said they didn't expect every school to develop a theme. Some schools might sell their parent involvement or neighborhood traditions or a certain teaching style.

    And that's okay, Zahn said, because parents still have a range of choices. Nothing is set in stone, either. Schools may change along the way.

    "As schools tend to develop more, they may enhance an attractor or try something a little bit more," Zahn said.

    Kings Highway Elementary School in Clearwater is sticking with what works.

    Principal Kenneth O'Bryant said parents and staff talked about making Kings Highway a literature-based school. But time and again, their discussions ended with the same conclusion: a traditional, neighborhood school is what the community wants.

    At first, O'Bryant was a little worried that Kings Highway wouldn't stand out. Parents reassured him.

    "The more we talked to our community, we really felt we wouldn't be underchosen," O'Bryant said. "While some parents might take their children to a school with a theme, the majority of the parents that we talked with felt that their primary concern was not a theme but a good solid education."

    Greg Cardone, principal of Meadowlawn Middle School in St. Petersburg, agrees. Meadowlawn will sell its emphasis on literacy and sound teaching strategies.

    "We felt as though what we're offering is so sound that we really didn't need a gimmick," he said. "Why change something that is already working for us?"

    Less than two miles away, Riviera Middle took a different approach.

    Principal Al Bennett's research showed that more than 120 students zoned for his school had chosen to attend Southside Fundamental School instead. So, Riviera is starting a fundamental style program in part of the school that will emphasize parental involvement and required homework.

    Seven other schools are starting fundamental programs, which, besides being popular with parents, don't cost more money as some specialty programs do.

    Principals acknowledge that marketing is new for them, so they're keeping open minds. Some themes could flop. So could adhering to tradition.

    "It may turn out we made the wrong choice," said O'Bryant of Kings Highway. "Only time is going to tell."

    Choice brochures

    Want to pick up school brochures? Visit a Family Education and Information Center:

    PTEC-St. Petersburg, 3420 Eighth Ave. S

    Robinson Challenge, 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater

    Or visit the Internet and follow school choice links:

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