Choice plan limits options for some
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
In August 2001, her family moved from Tucson, Ariz., to Palm Harbor. To live near the beach, she was willing to leave her friends and school in Arizona and move cross-country to Florida.
Now school choice is about to uproot Kaitlin again.
Next year, Kaitlin's new friends and neighbors will start at Palm Harbor Middle School. Three years later, they'll go to Palm Harbor University High, where Kaitlin's older sister is a freshman.
Kaitlin wants to follow the same path, but it's unlikely she can. Her friends have something she doesn't.
They have "extended grandfathering," which allows them to bypass choice and attend their zoned elementary, middle and high schools. That privilege is only for students enrolled in Pinellas schools June 6, 2001. It provides a sure thing during a time of much uncertainty.
Kaitlin, a fifth-grader at Sutherland Elementary School, has no such guarantee. Instead, she has a nagging feeling that choice isn't fair.
"I feel like I'm being punished," Kaitlin said. "I'm excited about middle school, but I'm worried about going to a different school other than Palm Harbor. My friends will go there."
Kaitlin is not alone.
Any student enrolled in Pinellas schools after June 6, 2001, -- an arbitrary date set by the School Board -- doesn't have extended grandfathering. That's about 25,000 students, including the new kindergarten classes that have started school since then.
Steve and Philicia Taylor moved to Pinellas County because Steve, an engineer, had a career opportunity in St. Petersburg's Raytheon office.
Sprawling, traffic-heavy Pinellas was an overwhelming place to look for a house. They knew they wanted to live close to good schools, in the best neighborhood they could afford.
They used the Internet, looking up crime statistics and test scores. They ruled out St. Petersburg and Dunedin and took advice from friends to land in Palm Harbor. They picked a house with a pool in the Indian Trails subdivision.
Palm Harbor University High is less than a mile away.
"It's just very new and very nice," Mrs. Taylor said.
It was just luck, they thought, that an excellent middle school (Palm Harbor) was also nearby.
During their house hunt, they heard vague comments about "choice." They didn't think much about it. Their neighbors didn't seem worried. They figured people were talking about the choice between public and private schools.
"When we saw advertisements for houses, they always told you what schools it was zoned for," Steve Taylor said.
Mrs. Taylor added: "Nobody knew it was going to be like this. The Realtor led you to believe the whole choice thing wouldn't be much of an issue."
The situation became clear after they closed the deal.
A neighbor told them about the fight in fall 2000 about extended grandfathering, describing how the community had pushed for it. The neighbor said families had wanted stability.
He told the Taylors they didn't have it.
Mrs. Taylor called district headquarters several times. She wanted to know whether the family's location would guarantee Kaitlin a seat at Palm Harbor Middle and Palm Harbor University High. She wanted to know how transportation would work.
"They kept giving different answers," she said. "They kept saying to stay in touch with your administrator at your local school. It was like no one knew the answers."
When the family learned more about choice -- the end of neighborhood zoning, the end of clear paths from elementary to middle to high school -- they couldn't believe the School Board thought it was a good idea.
"You can't plan," Steve Taylor said. "You can't anticipate. I resent that they call it a choice plan."
They wouldn't have to worry about Shea or Torry. Shea is a 15-year-old freshman who walks to Palm Harbor University High. They've already sent in her declaration of intent, indicating they want her to stay put.
Torry's only 2. Crowded schools should have more room by the time she's older.
But Kaitlin seemed stuck.
Kaitlin, a purple belt in karate, had finally gotten comfortable with her new life. She skateboards with kids in the neighborhood. Her mom drives her to school every day. Her grades are top-notch, with four As and two B-pluses on her last report card.
Next year, Kaitlin wanted to start sixth grade at Palm Harbor Middle, the school the Taylors thought she'd attend when they bought their house. But choice might take that choice away.
"I know what's best for my family," Steve Taylor said. "I don't need five choices."
The Taylors have to pick something, so they studied Kaitlin's options.
They weren't looking for special programs. They wanted a close school with a good environment, one where Kaitlin wouldn't be distracted by fighting or peer pressure. They were looking for a nice building.
Their research showed that the closest schools -- Palm Harbor, Carwise, Tarpon Springs -- are either full or over capacity. But on Kaitlin's choice application, they listed those schools as her top three choices anyway. They were required to list five. They settled on Safety Harbor as fourth, Dunedin Highland as fifth.
Kaitlin said Carwise sounds all right, but she really wants Palm Harbor.
"I personally think it looks nice," she said. "My sister said all her teachers were nice. She made lots of friends."
She also doesn't want to be stuck on a school bus for a long drive. What if she gets sick or there's an emergency and it takes her mom an hour to get to her? What if Kaitlin has a birthday party and her new friends can't come because they live too far away? How will the Taylors have time to be active volunteers?
"What is going to happen when you want to do something with a friend?" Mrs. Taylor asked. "Parents can't be expected to drive long distances."
In January, all families in the district will find out where their kids will go. Until then, the Taylors said they will try not to fret too much. They'll try to reserve their gripe sessions for moments when Kaitlin isn't in the room.
But Kaitlin clearly understands her predicament.
"I have to go through all this choice and I might not get my choice," Kaitlin said. "Shea gets to go to all these nice schools. I might not get to go to a school that's as nice."
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