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  • On school choice, you can't know too much


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    On school choice, you can't know too much

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published July 21, 2002

    You're a parent, guardian, sibling, mentor or student. Maybe you even work for the Pinellas County School District.

    You've heard about a new school choice plan. You're confused, overwhelmed or in the dark.

    Read on.

    Today, the Times introduces a new column, Choice Words, focusing on the student assignment plan that begins in 2003-2004.

    Every Sunday, this column will update you on new information about the controlled choice plan, answer your questions, offer interesting facts and provide key dates to mark on your calendar.

    The rest of the week, the Times will continue writing about significant events as they happen. But Choice Words will be a column you can turn to for detailed explanations of choice's nuances.

    But first, a little history lesson.

    Choice has its roots in 1964, when the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued Pinellas schools for discriminating against African-American children. Seven years later, the court ordered Pinellas schools to desegregate and set a cap on the number of black children who could attend any one school.

    In Pinellas, few neighborhoods are naturally integrated. To meet the federal court requirements, Pinellas has forced thousands of children to attend school far from home. Black children bore the brunt of this effort, with most riding buses to faraway schools.

    A small number of white children also endured long bus rides.

    This system was unpopular in many quarters, but it took more than three decades for the two sides to work out an end to the lawsuit. The framework of the choice plan is included in the settlement.

    Why choice and not neighborhood schools?

    Officials decided that the plan offers the best chance for the school district to remain integrated when racial caps disappear in 2007-2008. School Board members hoped that choice would encourage parent involvement, which helps schools and kids.

    Choice officially begins in 2003-2004. But families will make choices this fall.

    You can choose to keep your child in his current school, seek a spot in a countywide magnet or fundamental program, or apply for a school in your area of the county.

    The success of choice depends on parent involvement. When the school year begins, schools will hold open houses and tours. Information about every school is available on the Internet and in Family Education and Information Centers.

    There's no wiggle room here.

    You must make a choice by Dec. 13, or the district will decide for you.

    And that's not much of a choice.

    * * *

    Dream of sending your child to a magnet or fundamental school? The application process will be separate from the application process for other schools.

    The application process will open Aug. 1. Applications are due Oct. 15.

    On Nov. 10, the district will send out letters telling families whether they got in or are on a waiting list. Parents will have to tell the district by Nov. 20 whether they are accepting a spot in a magnet or fundamental school.

    This time line is far earlier than the old one. But there's a method to the madness.

    The application period for other schools ends Dec. 13. With the magnet and fundamental process shifted to the beginning of the school year, families will have the option to apply for other schools if they do not get into the magnets.

    Applications will be available in magnets and fundamental schools, as well as family centers.

    * * *

    Choice is the most dramatic change the district has faced since the start of court-ordered busing.

    To get more information, visit one of two family centers: PTEC-St. Petersburg, 3420 Eighth Ave. S, 552-1595; or Robinson Challenge, 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater, 298-2858.

    Or visit the school district's Web site and follow links to choice:

    You can also call the choice hotline: 588-5000.

    Mark your calendar

    Aug. 7: School starts.

    Aug. 26: District begins mailing "declaration of intent" forms. Return this form if you choose to keep your child at the school he currently attends.

    Sept. 16: Choice application process begins.

    Oct. 1: "Declaration of intent" forms are due.

    Dec. 13: Choice applications are due.

    -- Send questions about choice to Kelly Ryan Gilmer, and please indicate whether your name can be used in the column. E-mail Write to St. Petersburg Times newsroom, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731. Or fax 893-8675.

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