Palm Harbor parents gird for choice
By KELLEY BENHAM
PALM HARBOR -- It wasn't that there was nothing on TV.
About 40 parents riveted to a PowerPoint presentation on school choice at a Monday night meeting were drawn by powerful forces, they said: confusion, frustration, anxiety.
For these north Pinellas parents, school choice is a high-pressure sweepstakes, and they will leave as little to chance as possible.
"Everybody is jockeying for a spot," said Angela Scichilone, parent of a Palm Harbor kindergartener.
It's all about strategy, said Andrea Zahn, the Pinellas County school district's choice marketing coordinator and part of the three-person team of traveling experts who conducted Monday's community information meeting.
The presentation in the Palm Harbor University High School auditorium was the last of a countywide tour that hit four schools.
The Palm Harbor turnout has far surpassed the other locations. Five people attended a meeting at Boca Ciega High School. About 12 came to Pinellas Park High School. About 38 showed up at Clearwater High.
Between two meetings, one earlier this month and one Monday, Palm Harbor has drawn more than 100.
They did not represent a large percentage of area parents, but they were motivated.
In the crowd were teachers, real estate agents, stay-at-home moms and stay-at-home dads. Some had kids in private schools, some were considering it as a safety option.
Peter Dalacos, 48, set his VCR to tape the Bucs game and arrived armed: a yellow pad, a School Board guide to choice, a newspaper special section, all his forms and applications, questions and opinions.
"I'm being aggressive," he said.
Together, the parents probed the permutations of the choice formula, weighing and multiplying the five variables: grandfathering, family, proximity, professional courtesy and diversity.
Some questions were easily answered:
What if I move in March?
(The child can stay in his current school for that year, but not the next.)
What if all the schools are over capacity?
(Their actual capacity is determined by a three-part formula.)
What if my daughter gets into a fundamental school and she doesn't like it?
("You don't want that," said Jim Madden, a former principal who conducted the presentation. "You need to tell her she likes it.")
But this group came up with questions that stumped even the experts.
Lots of parents wanted to know how the order in which they ranked their choices would be considered. By their calculations, they were just as likely to get a fifth choice as a second choice.
This caused a commotion.
Madden wasn't sure. "I was a reading teacher," he said, and provided a phone number where statisticians could respond.
A few parents got frustrated when they discovered the formula not working in their favor.
The experts said, "I hear what you're saying," a lot.
Choice sounds simple on the surface, some parents said, like picking a sweater out of a catalog.
Terry Tillung, mother of Taylor and Tanner, used to feel that way. She changed her mind.
"It's unnerving. It's horrible," said the Palm Harbor real estate agent. "It's confusing and it doesn't seem to be fair."
Her children have become guinea pigs, she said, for a solution to a problem that had nothing to do with them. "This is all because of what happened in the '60s," she said. The choice plan, the most significant change in Pinellas schools in 30 years, is the result of the end of court-ordered desegregation.
When the meeting ended, most of the parents lingered and lined up for more questions. Several huddled in the auditorium aisles, bent over notes and maps and test data.
One woman walked out shaking her head, saying, "Oh, boy."
The last to leave, Dalacos, tailed the experts out of the auditorium and halfway to the parking lot.
He has taken a systematic approach, he said. He plans to visit five or six schools for his youngest daughter, a prekindergartener, and he'll be happy with any of his top three choices.
But not all parents have time or energy to be so aggressive, he said. As daunting as the process is, it would be worse if he did not have time during the day to make calls and visit schools, if he did not read volumes of material and ask lots of questions, if he did not have a computer to check the county's Web site.
He wonders about parents who don't have those advantages.
"I think a lot of people are going to get caught in a last-minute crunch," he said.
Tillung started researching choice a couple of years ago when the idea was new. The questions have not changed much, she said, and not all of them have been answered, either.
She wants her son in the medical program at Palm Harbor University High School.
If his luck is bad, she can afford private school. But she'll do whatever she can to improve his luck.
"Because what it means," she said, "is the education of your kid."
-- Kelley Benham can be reached at (727) 445-4182 or email@example.com.
Where to call
For information call (727) 588-5172 or go to www.pinellas.k12.fl.us.
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