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    Schools target choice stragglers

    Though most declarations have been returned, principals send out the troops to rally full participation.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published October 22, 2002


    About 280 students at Clearview Avenue Elementary School haven't turned in their declaration of intent forms to participate in Pinellas' school choice plan.

    Principal Denise Miller is deploying a team to change that. Her front office clerk will tag parents visiting campus. Her social worker and guidance counselor will make calls. If they must, her staff members will visit students' homes.

    "I want parents to get involved, to make a choice," she said. "I want parents to feel empowered."

    About six weeks ago, the Pinellas County School District sent 103,654 students a "declaration of intent" form so they could participate in the choice plan that begins next fall.

    By Monday, 72,264 declarations had been returned and entered into the computer. Less than two months before the Dec. 13 deadline, nearly seven of every 10 declarations have been completed and sent to the district.

    "It's nearly remarkable," said Marshall Touchton, a demographer in the student assignment department.

    Students new to the district -- including those enrolling in kindergarten and leaving private schools -- have to fill out choice applications, not declarations of intent. For incoming kindergarteners alone, the district expects around 8,000 applications. The district estimates that more than 1,700 choice applications have been submitted so far.

    If a student doesn't send in the declaration or fill out another choice application, the district will choose a school for that student.

    The district is launching a campaign to collect forms from the stragglers. The responsibility rests mostly on school administrators, who received data on Monday showing how many of their students have returned the forms.

    Principals now know, by name, which students have not sent the forms back to the district.

    Starting this week, they will target those students. The effort will take more than putting choice information in newsletters, on marquees and on morning school announcements.

    It will take personal phone calls, which Gulfport Elementary School principal Sharon Jackson plans. It could take rewards for students who pass along choice information to their parents, which Lake St. George Elementary is considering.

    "You want 100 percent," said principal Nick Grasso of Clearwater High School, where about 40 percent of students have not returned their declarations. "Whatever it's going to take on our end, we're going to stay on it. We've got ladies in the front office making calls trying to track these things down."

    On Nov. 9, the school district will canvass neighborhoods with low return rates. Volunteers will be armed with choice applications and information.

    Why would some parents be waiting?

    Lots of reasons.

    Some parents might still be researching schools. Others might be waiting to hear whether their kids have been invited to attend magnet or fundamental schools. Some might have filled out choice applications instead. Some could have sent in forms that haven't yet been typed into the computer.

    But others might not understand the forms or even know that they have to fill them out.

    "I think there are some parents out there who are still unaware that this is happening," said Dawn Coffin, principal at Coachman Fundamental Middle School.

    That's not the case at Coachman, which posted a 90.5 percent return rate. Overall, schools with high parental involvement, such as magnets and fundamentals, had higher return rates.

    "You're just going to find in the fundamental schools or the magnets that parents are more aggressive and more apt to get those things in and in on time," Coffin said. "I'm surprised it's not 100 percent with how involved our parents are."

    Schools with numerous students who move frequently, are poor or have limited English skills generally had lower return rates.

    Pinellas Park Middle School principal Valerie Brimm suspects that numerous students at her school didn't get the forms because they've moved. Her staff will call parents, send notes home and speak directly to students.

    "Our students may understand the seriousness of choice more so than the parents," she said. "If the students put some pressure on their parents, it might get them in."

    The statistics don't show school administrators everything they'd like to know.

    They show how many declarations have been returned but not the choices students have made. A school with a 90 percent return rate isn't necessarily more popular than one with a 50 percent return rate.

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