Choice goes on campaign trail
By KELLY RYAN GILMER and AMY WIMMER
Pinellas County Schools volunteer Lori Schaffert pressed her cell phone into Augustin Zacorias' hand on Saturday, urging him to call a Spanish-speaking interpreter who could help him make a school choice for his 8-year-old daughter.
The 15-minute phone call was a challenge because Zacorias did not know his daughter's Social Security number or birth date. But considering that many people Schaffert encountered Saturday looked at her blankly, getting the girl, Victoriana, registered was an accomplishment.
One student down, about 30,000 to go.
On Saturday, about 40 volunteers spent the morning knocking on about 2,000 doors to spread the word about a school choice plan that begins in fall 2003. With the application deadline five weeks away, on Dec. 13, the district is stepping up its outreach efforts.
Its goal is to have 100 percent of the county's students participate, but the event Saturday made clear how tough that will be to achieve.
Schools in Charlotte, N.C., held a similar canvassing event last year and drew more than 200 volunteers. Pinellas tried to recruit more, but some would-be helpers had other plans or were worried about their safety.
On Saturday, some families didn't answer their doors. Some couldn't remember receiving choice forms in the mail. Some said they didn't have children. Some knew they had to choose for their older kids but had not done anything for those entering kindergarten. Some didn't speak the same language as the volunteers.
Many said they already had sent in their applications, even though statistics tell a different story. Volunteers focused on areas in St. Petersburg and Clearwater where data show few families have sent in their applications. Unable to confirm that parents were being truthful when they said they had filed their papers, the volunteers simply handed them choice information cards.
One teenager, who answered his apartment door in boxers and a tank top, said his mother sent in his choice paperwork. He said his mom wasn't home to verify that.
"All the kids say yes. 'Yeah, my momma did it,' " said Billie Donaldson, a parent of 10 who volunteered with her husband. "I only talk to adults."
And some families couldn't communicate with the volunteers.
The neighborhood surrounding High Point Elementary School is so diverse that principal Archie Miller calls it "a mini-United Nations." Sometimes, volunteers didn't know what language the person answering a door would speak.
High Point is 48 percent white, with the rest divided among African-Americans, Hispanics and Asians. Seventy-seven percent of the students receive free or reduced-priced lunches, and as of three weeks ago, more than half hadn't made choices yet.
"Do you have children in school?" volunteer Suzanne Claessens asked a Verona Avenue man Saturday morning, who nodded his head yes and said "no."
"No speak English," he said.
"Ninos?" Claessens said, remembering the Spanish word for children.
"Si, two," the man replied, holding up two fingers.
"Telefono," Claessens said, pointing to a phone number on a choice flier. "Por favor."
If parents don't choose a school for their child, the district will choose for them. That choice might not be the school the child attends or one the parent wants.
Another canvassing effort is scheduled for Dec. 7. That day, volunteers will visit specific homes that haven't returned forms.
Despite the challenges, choice plan director Jim Madden said he felt good about the effort on Saturday. The people who answered doors were friendly and seemed to appreciate the visits, he said. A handful of choice applications were collected, and volunteers made lists of families who needed replacements mailed home.
"There's word of mouth in every community," he said. "I think that's where we'll get the best benefit."
Max Gray, 3, was the youngest volunteer. He joined Superintendent Howard Hinesley, School Board member Nancy Bostock, principals, counselors and parents to remind families about the upcoming deadline.
Only he did his work from a red Little Tikes wagon.
Max's family was stationed at Boca Ciega Townhomes on 37th Street S in St. Petersburg.
He and his parents, Kendrick and Donnebra Gray, pulled up to Vanessa Stephens' apartment, where three school-age children were sitting outside. When the oldest went to get her mother, Demarcus Lowe, 2, toddled outside.
Wearing a T-shirt and a diaper, he went straight to Max, who had choice packets piled in his lap.
"Do you go to school?" Max asked, copying part of the script he heard his mother repeat all morning. "I'll give you one."
Stephens was happy Max's family stopped by.
"I haven't heard about a choice plan," she said. "I didn't even know."
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