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    Report is guide for school choosers

    A new batch of numbers shows parents what schools their children might fit in under the choice program.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 20, 2002


    Want your child to attend Sawgrass Lake Elementary, Tarpon Springs Middle or Palm Harbor University High when choice begins next year?

    Good luck. Those schools are overflowing with students.

    Have your sights set on Campbell Park Elementary, Fitzgerald Middle or Countryside High?

    Those might be good bets. Right now, they have far more seats than students.

    These figures, released in a report to the Pinellas County School Board last week, are critical information for savvy parents choosing schools for next fall and trying to figure out their best chances of winning their top choices. The numbers show how many students can fit in a school -- assuming no portables -- given its current programs. Some schools desperately need to fill more seats; others won't have any room.

    The numbers are a month late. More than 70,000 parents have already turned in choice applications without these statistics. The application deadline is Dec. 13.

    Late or not, Largo Middle School Principal Bill Cooper is pleased with the numbers.

    In today's world of neighborhood zoning, Largo Middle is packed with about 1,570 students. When renovations are complete next summer, the district says, only 1,038 belong on that campus. The number of classrooms will decrease from 60 to 49.

    Cooper welcomes the day when enrollment shrinks to that number -- when the lunchroom can actually feed students in 30 minutes, when his campus doesn't need a dozen portable classrooms.

    Largo Middle is in good company.

    More than 70 schools have more students today than the district says their buildings can handle. When school choice starts next fall, crowded schools will be able to fit returning students and those who have "extended grandfathering" privileges to attend.

    But after that, the district will fill a school only to its set capacity. So jam-packed schools are not likely to have many -- or any -- seats for new students as the district tries to gradually reduce their enrollments.

    Principals don't want to turn away interested students. But many agree that redistributing students to schools with empty seats is a benefit of the choice plan.

    "We have great kids, and we're glad to have them," Cooper said. "But a few less would make it better."

    The process of determining how many students can fit in each school has taken months.

    Teams of officials visited schools to count classrooms. Special programs, like dropout prevention and special education, were assigned to schools. Preliminary numbers were released in mid-September.

    But they weren't right.

    So the district called in outside observers: Marlene Mueller and John Buckles. Both used to handle facility issues for the school district. They started from scratch.

    They discovered lots of problems.

    Art and music rooms hadn't been set aside for elementary schools. Programs that require smaller classes, such as Read 180 for low-performing readers, weren't considered. Neither were dropout prevention programs.

    In some schools, large open-space classrooms were counted as single rooms, when they can actually fit more students.

    As a result, the final capacity numbers are far different than figures from a month ago.

    Palm Harbor University High School's capacity had originally been set at just more than 2,000, including 16 portables. At the time, it was the only school in the district allowed to include portables in its permanent classroom space.

    Now, its number is set at 1,759.

    With Palm Harbor as a notable exception, most high schools have more room than originally thought. Generally, elementary schools lost space.

    Largo High School principal Barbara Thornton saw her school's capacity go up, but she doesn't think that's right.

    Largo High has a mediation center and rooms set aside for dropout prevention. A magnet program at the school uses extra space. She figures her school can only hold 2,160 students, but the district said she can take 2,493.

    Largo didn't add special theme programs to attract students during choice, figuring existing programs and community traditions would be enough. If that number sticks, Thornton is not sure what she'll do.

    "If your capacity has been raised a lot higher than what you have been used to, then it does change a school," Thornton said. "We would probably have to look at things differently if we had to look beyond this area for students."

    Lake St. George Elementary School in Palm Harbor also gained space. The school is being renovated and expanded by several classrooms, which principal Lon Jensen said accounts for the change. He expects the new classrooms to be open in time for choice. Unlike many of his North Pinellas neighbors, he has room to grow.

    "We'll have a little more capability of handling that," he said.

    Besides assigning every school a capacity for its permanent building, the district determined what school campuses can handle portable classrooms.

    Schools that need portables to accommodate students who have guaranteed seats -- a privilege called grandfathering or extended grandfathering -- will be able to use as many portables as needed. But as those students move through the schools and graduate, portables will be taken away.

    When those students are gone, the district will no longer install portables based on fluctuations at individual schools. Instead, portables can only be used if the number of students in a particular attendance area exceeds the number of permanent seats. Portables will be allowed on campuses that have enough land, bathrooms and cafeteria space to handle the extra students.

    The district provided statistics showing which schools could handle portables in this situation.

    By the middle of the week, capacity numbers will be posted on the district's Web site, www.pinellas.k12.fl.us.

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