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Choice questions defy easy answers

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By MARLENE SOKOL, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 8, 2002

Forget my kids. It's not your problem if they learn gang signs on their first day of middle school; or if I wrangle them into a fancier school, only to find it awash in designer drugs.

You don't need to know how I'm grooming my son to run track in hopes that a great high school will come after him.

If your kids go to public school in Hillsborough County, you and I are competitors.

We're all chasing the best education tax money can buy. This, in a state that had to think about whether classes should be smaller. This, in a school district that extends from the horse trails of Odessa to the cauliflower fields of Wimauma.

It's also a place where the phrase "separate but equal" is returning to the lexicon. School Board Chairman Doris Reddick has heard minority constituents muse about "resegregation" as the district replaces court-ordered busing with a creature called Controlled Choice.

The new set-up divides the county into seven regions and allows each child to designate a first-, second- and third-choice school within its borders. Choices are awarded as space permits, which raises the question: Can officials expect all 171,000 students to wind up where they want? Not likely.

An expanded system of magnets and attractors is supposed to encourage kids to leave their neighborhoods. But what if not enough families take advantage of them?

What if kids hopscotch from school to school to run away from their problems?

What if high schools really do recruit top athletes (they're not supposed to)? What if lesser-educated parents cannot read the massive reams of information that the district is mailing out, at a starting cost of $50,000?

And when all is said and done, will the schools be any good?

"I'm not sure if I could justify all of this money and staff time just to make sure our classrooms look diverse," board member Candy Olson said at a workshop Monday. She wants to see more results -- successful students, for example. "Can we look at economic diversity as much as ethnic diversity?" she added.

Good question.

I had more, some of which were answered and many that were not.

First (and a few people touched on this issue): What's to prevent parents who are powerful, well-connected, or just plain relentless and overbearing, from muscling their children into the best-equipped schools?

How competitive will the process be, given that they have pledged not to fill schools over capacity?

Is there any guarantee that the magnets and attractors (an attractor is like a magnet, only on a much smaller scale) will be wired and ready by start date?

And is anybody held accountable if the schools do start to look monochromatic? Sure, they plan to monitor racial balance. But at what point do they double back and rework the program? Say, for example, nobody wants to leave Hunter's Green Elementary, or Tampa Palms Elementary, or the other spanking-new schools in New Tampa's mostly white neighborhoods?

Glenn Barrington, one of the School Board's senior members, compared the effort to building a ship. But that process includes a shake-down period and then dry dock, where workers repair any existing problems. "There is no dry dock here," he warned.

No, it's all-systems-go in 2004.

On the bright side, school officials are preparing an early survey that will ask parents what selections they are likely to make. "This preliminary information will tell us whether we've put out options that would attract them in the numbers we would desire," said Donnie Evans, an assistant superintendent tapped to supervise Controlled Choice.

And good ideas came from Monday's session.

Olson suggested parents in transient neighborhoods -- such as the rental district west of the University of South Florida -- use Controlled Choice as a way to keep their children from switching schools so often.

Board members also urged the administration to give extensive training on Controlled Choice to principals, teachers, even nonprofit leaders and clergy. They were assured that there is plenty of federal money for this kind of massive outreach -- including extra phone lines, operators, media buys and mailings.

"We're leaving no stone unturned in communicating directly to our parents," Evans said.

In other words, when this whole thing shakes out, there might be lots of applicants chasing seats in the "A" schools, and far less choice than we were led to believe.

But we have little excuse not to learn how it works.

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