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Application limbo

As students get into schools, wait lists change, making it perplexing for parents who keep children on the lists.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 20, 2002


Of the nearly 6,500 children who applied to magnet and fundamental schools this year, several thousand of them are in a kind of limbo called the wait list. They didn't get in. But they didn't not get in either.

So they have to wait to see if their number moves up -- and eventually comes up -- giving them a spot in one of the district's coveted programs.

Those who did get in have to decide by this afternoon whether they will accept their invitations. Those on the wait list don't have to do anything but wait. But just sitting back and waiting doesn't suit many of the parents.

Just ask administrators at the schools, who have been fielding hundreds of calls from hopeful parents, concerned parents and parents who just want a little reassurance.

It made for an interesting week at many of the schools.

Office staff at Perkins Elementary School for the Arts and International Studies, where 1,009 applications were received for 92 openings, fielded between 80 and 100 calls. Most parents wanted to know their chances of moving up on the wait list, said magnet coordinator Pat Archibald.

"They'd say, 'My child is No. 82. Is there a chance he'll get in?' " she said, adding that it is unlikely children with numbers higher than 6 or 7 will get a spot.

"We make it very clear to them what their chances are, but they still believe they're going to get in," she said. "If we tell them there's a one in 10 chance, they feel badly for the other nine children."

Wishful thinking can be risky this year. Children whose parents fail to arrange a back-up plan will be assigned schools for 2003 under the district's new controlled choice plan. In the past, children who didn't get into magnet or fundamental schools could automatically attend their zoned schools. But with choice, students will no longer have a zoned school. They will have a variety of schools from which to choose within their attendance area, but parents must submit paperwork listing their top five picks by Dec. 13.

The changes in the student assignment plan fueled much of the concern this year regarding the magnet spots, Archibald said. About 60 parents replied in writing that they want to stay on the wait list, even though it was not necessary. Many called wanting to know if their children's chances of getting into attendance area schools will be jeopardized if they remain on the wait list. Some, resigned that their chances of getting into Perkins are slim, asked Archibald if she could recommend other schools.

At Bay Vista Fundamental School, principal Len Kizner reminded disappointed parents that wait list standing can change in the next couple of weeks. Many students who have been accepted at Bay Vista may have been accepted at other schools, since there is no limit to the number of magnets and fundamentals to which parents can apply, he told them. The list will "move" when children who have accepted seats are removed from other lists.

And because children at elementary and middle schools stay on wait lists until the next application period begins in fall 2003, there is a good chance seats will open up before next year, he said.

But the chances of getting a seat at the school are still slim. More than 600 children applied for 108 openings. About 30 of the spots are reserved for siblings of children who already attend Bay Vista under the district's family preference privilege. And because students who get into the school rarely leave -- a tendency at all magnets and fundamentals -- the 78 openings are nearly all for incoming kindergarteners.

The odds of securing a seat at a middle school magnet or fundamental are not much better. Because elementary programs are feeders for the middle schools, sixth-grade slots are often filled by students from the feeder schools.

At Southside Fundamental School, for example, only one or two sixth-grade seats were available after students leaving Bay Vista, Lakeview and Pasadena fundamental schools were placed, said assistant principal Pat Wright. Nearly 450 students applied for 23 seats in sixth- through eighth-grade, generating a wait list that left many parents feeling hopeless.

"A lot of parents called over and over again trying to figure out what to do," Wright said, explaining that many were weighing one choice against another. Among other things, they wondered if they should take a sure bet in another program or hold out and hope the wait list at Southside moves enough for them to get in.

Meanwhile, the most common question asked of staff in the International Baccalaureate office at St. Petersburg High was "What are my chances of getting in?" said assistant principal and IB program director Linda McPheron.

The school received just under 400 applications, a little less than last year, for about 130 seats. McPheron thinks parents may have thought twice before applying this year, because under the choice plan, it is no longer possible for a student to return to his or her zoned school if the magnet school doesn't work out.

At St. Petersburg High, as at other schools, personnel will begin entering the names of students who have accepted invitations into a database linked to the district's computer after today's deadline. When staff members return from Thanksgiving break on Dec. 2, they will begin calling families from a merged list generated by the district to fill any openings created by students who declined invitations or accepted invitations at other schools. Parents will have only 24 hours to accept those invitations.

"We have this choreography going on," McPheron said, explaining that the time line has been condensed considerably this year. "We will call them and they can make a decision in time so they can still fill out a choice application or a declaration of intent by Dec. 13."

How will McPheron interpret "24 hours"?

"We'll write down the date we called and just expect a call back by the next day," she said. "I'm not going to be writing down times. I think it's important to be reasonable. This is really a tough year for everybody. Parents are trying to do the right thing. Schools are trying to do the right thing. Everybody is working the best they can with the new situation."

Gary Schlereth, an assistant principal at Dixie Hollins High School and director of the school's graphic design career academy, also is making efforts to accommodate parents and children. He spoke to several parents -- and one student -- who called to make sure he had received their acceptance letters or faxes. He encouraged a number of the 72 families whose children were placed on a wait list after the school's 60 openings were filled not to give up, although because of the intensity of the programs, high school students are removed from wait lists 11 days into second semester.

Schlereth also agreed to allow students who found out they gained entrance to the program last week the opportunity to spend a day with present students to get a feel for the curriculum even though the deadline has passed.

"Those types of requests are still coming in," he said. "It's past the normal shadowing period, but we give students every opportunity. We don't turn them away."

While the schools were fielding parent questions last week, the office for magnet and fundamental school programs' staff worked overtime, handling about 60 calls a day, director Christine Lowry said.

"We've never had so many calls after letters went out," she said. "Parents who aren't sure of what they need to do next are very afraid of making a move without asking. They're worried they'll make a wrong move and jeopardize everything."

Uppermost in their minds, Lowry said, were questions about their chances of getting into a program and how quickly the wait lists will move. Most were calm, but unsure of what to do next, she said.

And then there was the small percentage of parents who were angry about one thing or another. Parents of straight-A students who had applied to five or six programs and secured spots at none were upset. Some called to say they were insulted by the "black" and "nonblack" list designations, which Lowry explained are necessary because the district is still under a federal court order that requires racial diversity in schools.

"I think a lot of it is driven by uncertainty," she said. "Once you explain it, they may not like it, but they understand."

The most important thing for parents to do now is to exercise the choices they still have before the Dec. 13 choice deadline, Lowry said, whether that means accepting magnet or fundamental invitations as they come up or filling out paperwork for attendance at area schools.

Perkins magnet coordinator Archibald offered the same suggestion.

"I will be so glad when we've lived through this for a couple of years and people are back to a level of trust," she said. "No matter how much you say to them, 'It will be okay, your child will be in a loving school,' there's so much anxiety."

Waiting lists

Due to the volume of calls directed to the district's office for magnet and fundamental school programs, office staff are still generating a school-by-school list of applicants and the number of seats granted for 2003-04. Director Christine Lowry anticipates numbers will be similar to last year's statistics, which follow.

(Note: Because the district is still under a federal court order that requires racial diversity, it maintains two waiting lists, one designated "black" and one "nonblack." When a black student leaves a program, the black waiting list moves. When a nonblack student leaves a program, the nonblack list moves.)

Elementary magnet and fundamental schools

Black students: 661 applications for 272 openings

Nonblack students: 2,481 applications for 774 openings

Middle school magnet and fundamental schools

Black students: 281 applications for 195 openings

Nonblack students: 1,526 applications for 882 openings

High school magnet schools

Black students: 445 applications for 263 openings

Nonblack students: 3,579 applications for 1,286 openings

-- Source: Times files.

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