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    Choice distinction frustrates parents

    Some parents say the rules make it too risky to apply to the International Culture and Commerce program at Clearwater High.

    By ABBIE VANSICKLE
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 22, 2002


    CLEARWATER -- The parents of many students who want to enroll in Clearwater High School's International Culture and Commerce program are finding that school choice is making it tough to do that.

    Though they plan to take their plight to the Pinellas County School Board tonight, school representatives say there's not much they can do.

    The Program for International Culture and Commerce curriculum is labeled an attractor program, but it isn't designated a magnet program. It's the magnet schools that fall under the school choice guidelines.

    In the past, students could apply for the program and, if accepted, could get special attendance permits to go to Clearwater High. But with school choice, special permits are no longer an option. Because PICC is not designated a magnet program, students could not apply directly to PICC on the Oct. 15 magnet, fundamental and academy program deadline.

    Instead, they have to first apply to Clearwater High by Dec. 13 and then try to get into the PICC program, running the risk of not getting into the program and having no other choice but to remain in the regular curriculum courses. That may be too big a chance to take, according to several parents.

    The four-year theme Program for International Culture and Commerce is open to all county high school students and is aimed at introducing students to international business and policy issues. Currently, 204 students are enrolled.

    "One of my daughters is a junior in the program, and she can come back to it," said PICC Booster Club president Jeff Skeim. "But my younger daughter is at Coachman, and I'm worried if I sign her up in the regular pool, she may end up somewhere that's not Clearwater High."

    Skeim said he was frustrated to learn that his children could not directly apply to the PICC program. Parents could choose which magnet program they wanted for their children, he said. Why should it be any different for PICC?

    There's actually a big difference between PICC and magnet programs, said Cindy Green, Clearwater High assistant principal and the overseer of the program.

    "PICC is not a magnet, it's a theme," Green said. "It's an attractor program that's particular to this high school."

    The difference between a magnet program and a themed attractor program is a crucial distinction in this case, said Christine Lowery, supervisor of magnet and fundamental school programs.

    "A magnet program is created for two purposes," she said. "It offers a different curriculum from other schools but also serves as voluntary desegregation. . . . The program at Clearwater was not designed to bring minority students to the northern part of the county."

    Because PICC was not designed to encourage desegregation, it cannot be viewed as a magnet program and cannot be included in the magnet choice guideline, she said.

    But even if the PICC parents' groups persuaded the school board to change the program's status to a magnet school, the board couldn't do anything for at least four years, School Board attorney John Bowen said.

    Bowen said the county had a legal agreement with the NAACP that lays out guidelines for the choice plan. One of these guidelines states the county cannot create another magnet program for the first four years of choice.

    "As far as starting to treat the program like a magnet, to do so would be a violation of the court order we have for the choice plan," he said.

    Skeim said he was aware of the legal problems barring the board from changing the program's status, but he's still worried about the future of PICC. He thinks the number of students in the program may dip dangerously low and, although it's too late for this year, he hopes the board will come up with some kind of solution for next year.

    "PICC doesn't fit the criteria of being a magnet, but it's always had preselection status," he said. "Parents just want the program to maintain this status in the county."

    The Clearwater High attractor program emphasizes international business and studies and multicultural diversity.

    It features small classes, a state-of-the art computer lab and opportunities for foreign travel through exchange programs.

    -- Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 445-4224 or at vansickle@sptimes.com .

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