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    Choice complicates kindergarten

    Parents want to pick the best match for a child who has never gone. Schools want to find kids never registered - by Dec. 13.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published November 17, 2002


    ST. PETERSBURG -- Linda Worley knows Pinellas' school choice plan so well that she corrects district employees who get the details wrong.

    Months ago, the St. Petersburg mother determined what she wanted in a school and made a mental list. Then she visited 10 campuses. Her daughter, Grace, will be one of about 8,000 kindergarteners to start school in 2003-04, the first year of the new school choice plan.

    Incoming kindergarteners present an unusual challenge for district officials charged with promoting choice: They don't know where to find all of them.

    The 103,000 current students who must make choices by the Dec. 13 deadline are easier to hound because they visit schools every day and their addresses are on file. To get to the kindergarteners, choice communications director Andrea Zahn has to go to them.

    She has mailed fliers to all of the county's licensed preschools and home day cares. She has visited Head Start centers. Reminders are in pediatricians' offices, utility bills, churches and Spanish groceries.

    Through those efforts, she has probably reached as many as two-thirds of the incoming kindergarteners -- assuming schools passed the fliers to parents. Zahn knows she hasn't reached them all.

    "I've had preschool parents tell me, 'So-and-so doesn't think they have to do anything,' " she said.

    In the prechoice era, parents of incoming kindergarten students didn't have to think about registering for elementary school until the spring or late summer before school started. Invariably, some waited until the first day of school to register at their zoned school.

    That won't work anymore.

    Now, incoming kindergarteners have to apply on the same fall timetable as older students. To do that, they must visit one of two Family Education and Information Centers. If they don't, they will be placed in a school that has spaces left over after all the applications are processed.

    "It's going to be a challenge, but it's always been," said Marianne Easton, the district's supervisor of early childhood education. "I can't see that we're ever going to have 100 percent that are going to know."

    So far, about 3,000 incoming kindergarteners have filled out applications. Some, like Worley, haven't applied yet because they were waiting to learn whether their kids would be invited to attend magnet or fundamental schools. (Worley's daughter wasn't.)

    Some still are visiting schools and weighing options. But others might not know they have to do anything.

    Teresa Bethune found out about choice last week.

    The St. Petersburg mom had received something in the mail about choosing a school for her son, who is bused to Walsingham Elementary School in Largo. But she discarded the letter.

    When she picked up her 4-year-old daughter Aliyah from Imagination Station Day Care on Thursday, a teacher reminded her about the upcoming application deadline. She panicked, and visited a Family Education and Information Center on Friday.

    Bethune said she'll have time to research her kids' options, but she's not really sure where to start.

    "Hopefully, it'll all work out," she said.

    Nineteen students from Bridges To Learning preschool in St. Petersburg will be heading to kindergarten next year. School director Velmon Brown is confident that their parents have the information they need to make good choices, in part because a district official visited the school to explain the process.

    "I think most parents have heard about it," she said, adding that she has seen information at church, community meetings and in the media. "But I'm not sure all have acted upon it."

    Choice can be overwhelming, especially for those new to the school district.

    Some parents don't know anything about the district or what to look for when choosing schools. Others can't get straight answers from district employees about waiting lists and busing and special theme programs. None can stand to wait until January to learn the results of the choice lottery.

    Kim Drew thinks the school district should have found a way to mail a notice to incoming kindergarteners. She found out about choice from her son's day care center and decided Friday to list Azalea Elementary in St. Petersburg as her first choice.

    It's close to home, and her niece is there.

    "Why didn't they put the application online?" she said, as she completed one for her son Dylan. "For working parents, it sure would be easier."

    But not everyone likes their neighborhood school option. Some parents said they were surprised by the wide range of schools. They said some schools had unattentive front office staffs, and some had employees who complained about a school's old building or its large enrollment.

    But others gave out goodie bags and eagerly sold special programs, business partnerships and awards.

    "What's frustrating is: Why isn't my neighborhood school the one I'd want to choose? All the schools should be my first choice," said St. Petersburg parent Stephanie Flynn, whose daughter Madison starts kindergarten next fall. "We had planned before choice on putting her in private school."

    Researching schools has been easy for Nina Warshofsky, who said all of the schools near her Clearwater home have impressive test scores and parent support. It's the process that continues to confuse her.

    She still isn't sure how all of the rules work and how the computer will sort it all out. To her questions, she said the family center gave answers like: We're not sure. Let me check. They're going to have a meeting on that.

    "I quickly realized I couldn't ask any questions because they couldn't give me an answer," she said. "It just wasn't a warm, fuzzy feeling."

    Searching for an elementary school has been a full-time job for Worley, so many hours it's hard to count. Since August, she has taken 10 one-hour school tours, done Internet research on test scores, driven around neighborhoods and "of course polled every person I know."

    What does she want?

    She wants Grace to learn Spanish, to be safe, to have a small class. She wants special areas of study, such as art or marine science, that will challenge and intrigue. She wants her daughter's school to be diverse.

    This week, she'll finally fill out an application.

    She'll put Perkins and Bay Point as her first two choices because both magnet schools have seats for students in her attendance area. Her other choices will be Sexton, Campbell Park and Northwest.

    Then, she'll wait and worry.

    "I did everything I was supposed to do," she said. "We'll just see what happens."

    If Grace doesn't get into any of those schools, Worley already has a plan. Grace will go to private school.

    For more information

    To get more information about choosing a school, visit or call:

    Family Education and Information Center at PTEC

    3420 Eighth Ave. S, St. Petersburg, 552-1595

    FEIC at Robinson Challenge

    1101 Marshall St., Clearwater, 298-2858.

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