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Some schools' racial ratios need adjusting

Seven elementary schools have a surplus of African-American students. Other schools have too few. Officials work to bring the numbers into line with a court order.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 12, 2002

In the Pinellas County School District's official student count, seven elementary schools have more African-American students than a federal court order allows.

The schools are Belleair, Fairmount Park, Gulfport, Kings Highway, Lakewood, North Ward and Sandy Lane. The schools are located from Clearwater, to St. Petersburg, to Gulfport.

The racial limits vary by school level and whether a school is north or south of Ulmerton Road. Generally, north of Ulmerton Road the limit on black students hovers around 25 percent. South of Ulmerton, it's closer to 42 percent.

These racial limits will continue for the first four years of a new choice plan, which begins next fall.

In years past, the district was required to try to bring schools into compliance by assigning groups of white children to these schools (a controversial process called "rezoning") or verifying home addresses to make sure students were enrolled at the correct school.

Choice will change that.

Families apply for schools this fall. A computer will process the applications, dividing students among schools to try to achieve the right racial makeups. The goal is for every school to start choice with the appropriate diversity.

"I think choice is a better way," said pupil assignment director Kathy Walker. "With rezoning, you disrupt a large number of kids."

In a student enrollment report released this week, there was also good news.

Two schools, Campbell Park and Lakewood elementary schools in St. Petersburg, began last year above the ratios. With two years to go before choice began, the district was required to try to bring those schools into compliance.

The district staff took a controversial approach, deciding to rescind 55 special attendance permits. Many of those permits belonged to district employees who wanted their children to attend school near or where they work.

Now, Campbell Park is about 38 percent African-American. Lakewood is just over 42 percent, which is technically more than the federal court allows. But School Board attorney John Bowen said it is close enough to prove that the district did what it could to comply with the court order.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley has said that if the schools met the ratios, he might be able to reinstate some of the attendance permits. Hinesley could not be reached Wednesday.

Enrique Escarraz, lead local attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, didn't agree with the approach the district used to control the student populations at Campbell Park and Lakewood. But he was pleased that it got results.

What concerned him more, as he read the report, was the list of schools with no diversity.

Under choice, schools all over the county will be assigned "diversity goals" that match the population in that part of the county. The goals will include a desired "minimum" and a desired "maximum."

In far north Pinellas, elementary schools such as Brooker Creek, Ozona and Palm Harbor have less than 2 percent black students. Their goals will be higher, around 7 percent.

"That's something those schools need to do something about," Escarraz said.

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