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    School intent forms on the way

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published September 8, 2002

    It's still not perfect. It's still going to confuse parents. But at least it's done.

    The long-anticipated, much-debated "declaration of intent" letter for school choice, which was supposed to be mailed in August, will finally arrive in mailboxes this week.

    The Pinellas County School District is sending the declaration -- the official start of the new school choice plan -- to every student now enrolled in kindergarten through 11th grade. That's 105,000 letters.

    It's late because the School Board stepped in and demanded major revisions, including a new slogan, pictures reflecting student diversity and a simpler brochure format. The changes cost about $20,000, including a fee for a private graphic designer, even though the district employs two of its own.

    Now that the declaration has been written and rewritten, will parents understand it?

    "We have smart customers out there who know what to do," said Jim Madden, the district's choice plan director.

    But School Board members said Friday that the more they study the newest version, the more changes they'd like to make. They'd like to define bureaucratic terms, make deadlines clearer and explain that some families can claim special privileges under the choice plan.

    Another problem: The declaration lists a student's current school but not the program the student attends. So, the form might say a student can return to St. Petersburg High School but not mention that the student is in the International Baccalaureate program.

    The district expects to get lots of calls from parents worried that their children somehow lost their seats in coveted magnet programs, even though they didn't.

    "We didn't even have a chance to ask those kinds of questions because they slam-dunked it," said board member Jane Gallucci. "What a mess."

    The declaration of intent signals a new beginning for the Pinellas County School District, a move from traditional neighborhood zoning to a system of parental choice. Many parents have fretted and complained about this transition for months.

    Now they have to formally decide something with a form that board members say needs more work.

    "I'm sure it's not perfect," said board chairman Lee Benjamin. "But it's much better."

    The declaration basically asks: Where do you want your children to attend school in fall 2003?

    The declaration provides directions for keeping your current school assignment or applying for "attendance area" schools, magnet and fundamental schools, charter schools or special attendance permits.

    It lists phone numbers and addresses for two Family Education and Information Centers, where all choice questions are being forwarded.

    For families happy with the schools their kids now attend, the declaration is a painless way to participate in choice. In step one, a parent or guardian can simply check a box indicating that their kids will stay put or take advantage of what is known as "grandfathering."

    Then, the form can be mailed in the postage-paid envelope the district provided. That family would be finished with choice and has no other forms to fill out.

    The situation gets more complicated for families that want to make changes.

    During choice, the district will be divided into large attendance areas. A student will be able to list five schools that serve his attendance area. Some students will get priority to attend their top-choice schools, such as those who live nearby or those who have older siblings already enrolled there.

    But there's nowhere on the declaration to indicate that a family wants to claim special consideration, such as siblings who want to attend the same school.

    "They don't even talk about the preferences," said board member Linda Lerner.

    Then there's the matter of deadlines.

    The district has said for months that the declarations must be returned by Oct. 1. Now, the district says it would be nice to have the forms back by Oct. 1 for families who want their current schools.

    But if not, that's fine, too. A student can claim his spot in his current school up until the end of the choice application period Dec. 13.

    That leaves only two firm deadlines for choice. Magnet and fundamental school applications -- which are different from the declaration -- must be received by the district by Oct. 15. All other forms -- the choice applications and the declarations -- must be received by the district by Dec. 13.

    A student who doesn't make any choices by Dec. 13 will be assigned to a school after all other students are assigned.

    The district wants families to return the declarations as soon as possible. Five temporary workers will log application information into district computers. The task will be more difficult if most of the applications are returned right before the deadline.

    The district also will keep a running tab of how many students want to keep their current schools. That information could be helpful to parents trying to figure out where to apply because they will know how many available seats remain.

    Choice Q&A

    What is coming in the mail?

    By Tuesday, a form called a "declaration of intent" is being mailed to every student in Pinellas public schools from kindergarten through 11th grade. It is a very important piece of paper.

    What is a declaration of intent?

    It is your chance to tell the school district where you want your children to attend school next year. If you're choosing to keep your child in the child's current school, the district would like the form mailed back to the district, in the included postage-paid envelope, by Oct 1. But the final deadline is Dec. 13.

    Do I have to fill out the form if I want my child to stay in the school where my child is now?

    Yes. The district will not, repeat, will not, assume you want your children to stay where they are unless you say so. That is what makes the form so important.

    What are my options when I receive the declaration of intent?

    If you want to keep your child's current school, check off that box and return the form. You're done, and you don't have to fill out anything else. You can also make other choices with the declaration of intent.

    Do you want to apply to a countywide magnet or fundamental school?

    If you do, you should indicate that on the declaration. There will be a space to say whether you want to keep your zoned school if you don't get accepted into your chosen magnet or fundamental school. If you don't want to keep your zoned school, you must select other area schools as a backup if you don't get into a magnet or fundamental school program. (Read the answer to the next question for information about applying to a school in your attendance area.) It is important to note that you must fill out separate applications to magnet and fundamental schools; checking off the declaration is not enough. Magnet and fundamental school applications are available at the specific school, at a Family Education and Information Center, in the district administration building and on the district's Web site, www.pinellas.k12.fl.us. The applications must be received by the school district by Oct. 15.

    Or do you want to apply to a school in your attendance area?

    Families may use the declaration to list five choices of area schools (there are four elementary areas, three middle school areas, and the entire county is one area for high schools). The final deadline for returning the declaration is Dec. 13, though the district would like it as soon as possible. If you have questions about schools or filling out the form, you can call a Family Education and Information Center for help.

    What is a magnet school?

    A magnet school is a countywide program that offers a specialized area of study, such as art, science or medicine. The district has four elementary magnets, two middle school magnets and 10 high school magnets. Magnets are wildly popular, with far more students applying each year than there are seats available.

    What is a fundamental school?

    A fundamental school is a countywide program that offers a "back to basics" emphasis, with required homework, required parent involvement and strict dress codes. There are five fundamental elementary schools and two fundamental middle schools.

    What is a choice school?

    With choice, neighborhood zone lines will disappear. They will be replaced by "attendance areas," and you will be able to choose among the schools in your attendance area. There are four attendance areas for elementary school and three for middle school. The entire county is the attendance area for high school, meaning students can select from all 16 high schools. A "choice school" or "area school" refers to the schools in your attendance area.

    What is an attractor?

    An "attractor" is a special program, theme or idea that a school uses to attract students during choice. For some schools, that could be a concentration on technology, wellness or marine science. For other schools, it could be strong community support or a focus on reading skills.

    How can I learn more about the attendance zones and about the schools?

    The school district's Web site, www.pinellas.k12.fl.us, has maps and lists of schools by area. Family Education and Information Centers -- at 3420 Eighth Ave. S in St. Petersburg and 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater -- also have maps and a choice information guide. The Times will publish a School Search section Sept. 15 with the same information.

    What if my child is new to the school district, including children who are coming from private schools or home schools?

    Because you are not currently in the public school system, you will not receive a declaration of intent. However, you may apply to a magnet or fundamental school (applications are already available). And beginning Sept. 16, you may apply to a choice school. That application form must be returned in person to a Family Education and Information Center.

    My child is currently in a public school but will be moving up to middle school next year. What does the declaration of intent allow me to do?

    The declaration of intent will tell you whether you have a privilege called "extended grandfathering" that allows you to continue to attend your zoned middle school. If you do have that privilege, you will be able to indicate that you want to go there. Then, you can return the declaration in the postage-paid envelope and you won't have to do anything else. If you don't have that privilege, the declaration will tell you that you don't have a school assignment for next year and that you must apply for an area school, magnet school or fundamental school.

    My child is currently in a public school but will be moving up to high school next year. What does the declaration of intent allow me to do?

    The declaration of intent will tell you whether you have a privilege called "extended grandfathering" that allows you to continue to attend your zoned high school. If you do have that privilege, you will be able to indicate that you want to go there. Then, you can return the declaration in a postage-paid envelope and you won't have to do anything else. If you don't have that privilege, the declaration will tell you that you don't have a school assignment for next year and that you must apply for an area school or a magnet school.

    What if I want a different school for my child but I'm not ready to list my five choices by Oct. 1?

    That's okay. You can finish researching schools and simply return the declaration by Dec. 13. Or you can indicate that you need help from the Family Education and Information Centers. The FEICs are at 3420 Eighth Ave. S in St. Petersburg (across from Gibbs High School) and at 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater (the old Robinson Challenge School). Beginning Monday, the hours are 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Fridays.

    What are my deadlines?

    -- Oct. 1: The district would like the declaration of intent returned by this date, particularly for families who want to keep their current schools. Simply mail it back to the district in a postage-paid envelope the district provided.

    -- Oct. 15: Magnet and fundamental school applications due to the schools where a family is applying. The schools must receive the applications by this date; postmarking them Oct. 15 will make them late.

    -- Dec. 13: Choice applications due in person to a Family Education and Information Center.

    How will I know that the school district has received my declaration of intent?

    You will receive a postcard from the school system informing you that officials have received your declaration of intent. That postcard should arrive by mid November. District officials say it's a good idea to make copies of the form before you mail it.

    Can I return my declaration of intent, saying I want to stay where I am, and then later apply to a magnet or fundamental school?

    Yes -- as long as you get your application for the magnet or fundamental school in by Oct. 15.

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