Minorities lag in school choice
By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
Minority and low-income students who stand to benefit most from Pinellas County's school choice plan may find themselves at a disadvantage before classes begin next fall.
With the choice application deadline less than two weeks away, those students are not filing the required paperwork at the same rate as white students and more well-to-do families.
About 57 percent of the 24,000 students who still have not applied for schools for 2003-04 qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, an indicator of lower family income. And while three of every four of the district's 103,000 students have turned in the choice forms, the percentage of black and Hispanic students who have filed the forms is significantly lower than the percentage of white students.
Students who don't send in the choice application forms by the Dec. 13 deadline won't get to choose where they attend school in 2003. The school district will choose for them.
One of the goals of choice is to give minority students who have been bused long distances to meet court-ordered desegregation requirements an opportunity to choose schools closer to home. But since schools will be required to be racially balanced for four more years under choice, minority students who don't fill out the choice forms are more likely to be forced to attend schools outside their neighborhoods.
"They could be stuck anywhere. It's scary," said Deborah Turner, the principal at Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg, whose staff has sent three letters to parents reminding them about the deadline.
In many cases, principals said, the families who haven't sent in the choice applications are the same ones who don't regularly participate in school events. Many work more than one job, move frequently or don't speak fluent English.
The parents have so much going on, say educators who know the students, that tasks such as choosing a school for 2003 fall through the cracks.
They are parents like Madeline Vega. She has four children. She is pregnant. And she and her husband work for a floral shop, which is busy during the holidays.
Vega, whose kids attend Blanton Elementary, knew about choice and the deadline. But she didn't realize she has to fill out choice papers, even though she wants her kids to stay at Blanton next year.
"I thought if you didn't, they automatically go back to their zoned school," she said. "I just found out."
Pinellas Schools Superintendent Howard Hinesley says that the district is doing all it can to reach all students, particularly poor and minority students. He has visited two black churches in St. Petersburg to remind families about the upcoming deadline.
District officials have walked neighborhoods with low application return rates, sent social workers to homes and called parents. They have put choice fliers in health department offices, grocery stores and community centers.
Alex Emmanuelli says it's not enough.
Emmanuelli is the executive director of UNO Federation Community Services, which provides services to the county's Hispanic population. Its main goal is to improve communication between Hispanic families and local agencies and governments.
The school district never asked him for help, never sent him information about choice. Now, he thinks it's too late.
"They just totally failed," Emmanuelli said. "It's very hard and very expensive to reach these people. It's a very slow process, because we have to visit neighborhoods and talk to church pastors."
Overall, more than 75 percent of the district's current students have turned in their applications. About 67 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch have participated so far, compared with nearly 84 percent of students from families with higher incomes.
Almost 82 percent of white students have already made choices, compared with 63 percent of black students and 67 percent of Hispanic students.
A map prepared by the school district shows that the students who have not yet made a choice live throughout the county, in all kinds of neighborhoods. Some predominantly poor or minority neighborhoods stand out for residents' low participation. They include the Greenwood section of Clearwater, the Union Academy neighborhood in Tarpon Springs and Campbell Park in St. Petersburg.
Choice proponents have argued that this new system could improve student achievement, particularly for poor and minority children. Right now, most students are zoned to attend schools in their neighborhoods. When they move, which poor families tend to do more frequently than wealthier families, the students have to change schools.
Under choice, those students could stay in the same school as long as the family moved within the school's large attendance area.
As a group, poor and minority students don't perform as well on standardized tests as their peers. With choice, students can choose a school with a special theme or teaching style. That could help students achieve more. Supporters say it also could boost parental involvement if families feel more invested in schools they chose.
Hinesley still expects most of these students to participate in choice, because principals are reaching out to them one by one. He said the trends in the return rates for choice applications are consistent with those from some other districts that started school choice plans.
But that's not what happened in Charlotte, N.C.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools are in their first year of choice. One week before their application deadline, white students were participating at greater rates than black students.
But 80 percent of poor students had applied, compared with 63 percent of wealthier students. When the deadline passed, 96 percent of students had applied. Of the 4,000 or so who didn't, half qualified for free or reduced-price lunch.
Damon Ford, a Charlotte schools spokesman, credited outreach events such as ones Pinellas has done. But he said families could call in their choices, apply online or turn in forms on Saturdays.
In Pinellas, many families can apply by mail, but no one can apply by phone or Internet.
Principals have lists of students who haven't turned in their forms. But getting the message to their parents isn't easy.
Some students move and forget to tell school administrators their new phone numbers. Some don't have phones. Some speak English well, but their parents don't.
Dixie Hollins High School assistant principal Steve Knellinger has given the same student a choice form five times. The boy keeps losing it and asking for another. Teachers met individually with 400 students who haven't participated. Knellinger hopes to cut that number in half, but he's not optimistic he can do better.
"The last 200 are going to be very, very difficult," Knellinger said. "We have students who have been to three different schools this year. We've got kids who lost their mom and dad this year. This is the last thing they're thinking about."
Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg plans to stick neon green reminder decals to students' shirts, figuring parents won't miss those.
One pressing problem: Some parents remain confused about the rules of choice.
Denise Miller, principal of Clearview Avenue Elementary School in St. Petersburg, said numerous parents have told her they didn't think they had to fill out paperwork unless they wanted to change schools.
There are many other reasons some parents are waiting until the last minute.
Melissa and Joe Cordeiro just moved last week. They wanted to see whether they liked their third-grade daughter's new school before choosing.
Peggy Sue Herbert of St. Petersburg has been researching high school options for her two oldest kids and planned to attend some school open houses this month.
She never had time. But she knew it, it was time to get the paperwork done. Right before Thanksgiving, she tried. She got one application done, but she had trouble getting a straight answer about how to get the right paperwork for her son.
She'll have to straighten it out when schools open this week.
"I think this school choice is way too complicated," Herbert said. "It would be easier if they said you're in this neighborhood, pick one of those schools."
St. Petersburg mom Tina Noodwang has already sent in a form saying she wants her oldest daughter to go to Pinellas Park Middle School next year. She hasn't decided for her two sons, who attend Blanton Elementary.
Education is a priority in her family, she said, but making an important decision takes time. She has four children and just quit her job to care for her father, who has lung cancer.
What is she going to choose?
"I don't know," she said. "It's very hard."
-- Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.
The statistics of choice
With the application deadline less than two weeks away, more than 75 percent of Pinellas students have declared their choice in schools. Some comparisons within the return rates:
-- About 67 percent of students who qualify for free or reduced-priced lunch have participated, compared with nearly 84 percent of students from families with higher incomes.
-- Almost 82 percent of white students have already made choices, compared with 67 percent of Hispanic students and 63 percent of black students.
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