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    Many reminders as school choice deadlines near

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published August 25, 2002

    The countdown has begun.

    Only 22 days until the choice application process opens, 37 days until declarations of intent are due, 51 days until magnet and fundamental applications are due and 111 days until choice applications are due.

    With so many questions about the details of choice -- and the deadlines fast approaching -- this week's column is a hodgepodge of answers, details and changes.

    Special attendance permits will still exist with the choice program, but like everything else, they won't be exactly the same.

    B.C. (Before Choice), parents could seek an SAP so their child could attend any school other than the school he is zoned to attend. SAPs were valid for one year and could be granted for a variety of reasons, such as medical, hardship or professional courtesy.

    With choice, neighborhood zoning will disappear. Instead, the county will be divided into four attendance areas for elementary, three for middle and one (the entire county) for high school. Students can apply to attend any school in their attendance area.

    With more freedom of movement under choice, SAPs will be allowed to choose a school only across area lines -- if you live in elementary area A but want a school in elementary area B, for instance.

    Because students will be able to choose among all of the district's 16 high schools, SAPs won't exist for high school. They can be used only for elementary and middle schools.

    They will continue to be valid for one year. SAP applications will be available Sept. 16 in the Family Education and Information Centers. They won't be processed until after all choice applications are processed in January.

    If you plan to seek an SAP, don't bank on getting one. You must also fill out a choice application or declaration of intent to pick some backup schools in your attendance area.

    Students who win SAPs to attend school in another attendance area will have access to transportation if space is available on a bus.

    At a recent meeting, parent Ayakao Watkins told school officials that Family Education and Information Centers weren't offering enough hours. The centers handle all choice questions.

    There are only two centers -- one at 3420 Eighth Ave. S in St. Petersburg, one at 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater. Both have been open from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday. During the choice application period from Sept. 16 to Dec. 13, district officials planned to have each center open one night a week.

    Watkins said that wasn't enough.

    "The parents with questions don't have time to come into a family center," she said.

    She was right. So, the district has changed family center hours, effective Sept. 3.

    Starting then, each center will be open 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. On Fridays, each center will be open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.

    A reminder: The declaration of intent letters that will be sent out at the beginning of September will be mailed only to students currently enrolled in kindergarten through 11th grade.

    Those new to the district -- incoming kindergarteners, home-schooled students or private school students -- will have to seek out information.

    Magnet and fundamental school applications, due Oct. 15, are available in those schools and at Family Education and Information Centers. An application that covers all other schools, due Dec. 13, is available in family centers.

    On the hunt for more info about schools?

    The school district's Web site, www.pinellas.k12.fl.us, now includes a list of all of the upcoming discovery nights and school tours. What is a discovery night, you ask? It's a fancy name for "open house."

    Every school in the county will have a discovery night and several tours. They start this week -- so don't wait to check the calendar.

    Sure, read brochures and talk to your friends and study school grades (available online at www.firn.edu/doe/) but there's no substitute for visiting a school and checking out how clean it is, how many books are in the library, what classes are available, how engaging the principal is and so on.

    Mark your calendars

    -- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 10, Palm Harbor University High School, 1900 Omaha St.

    -- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 12, Pinellas Park High School, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo.

    -- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 18, Clearwater High School, 540 S Hercules Ave.

    -- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 19, Boca Ciega High School, 924 58th St. S, Gulfport.

    -- 7 to 8:30 p.m. Sept. 23, Palm Harbor University High School, 1900 Omaha St.

    -- Send questions about choice to Kelly Ryan Gilmer, and please indicate whether your name can be used in the column. E-mail ryan@sptimes.com. Write to St. Petersburg Times newsroom, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731. Or fax (727) 893-8675.

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