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    Fewer parents crowd schools for help with choice forms

    Schools open Saturday allowed parents to learn about choice and sign up their children. Only 350 parents showed up.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 8, 2002

    Six Pinellas schools were open Saturday to make it more convenient for families to meet the district's Dec. 13 choice application deadline.

    Few took advantage of the opportunity.

    Only 350 parents visited schools to ask questions and fill out choice forms. As of Friday morning, about 19,000 current students still did not have their required paperwork completed. (About 85,000 did.)

    District officials -- who advertised Saturday's event on television, in newspapers, in school newsletters and in churches -- were disappointed. But they didn't seem surprised.

    Some parents are natural procrastinators. Some still are researching their options. Some probably won't apply no matter how many ways the district reaches out, they said. Plus, the choice event conflicted with some community activities, such as a neighborhood cleanup in Clearwater and the Santa Parade in St. Petersburg.

    "I wish we could say we had a swarm of people here today," choice communication coordinator Andrea Zahn told several television reporters, who outnumbered the parents at Clearwater Intermediate School. "It means we'll have a big rush next week."

    All families who want their children to attend Pinellas schools in 2003-04 must complete choice applications by 7 p.m. Dec. 13. If they don't, the school district will assign them to a school that has seats left over after all other students are placed.

    Two Family Education and Information Centers will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Friday to collect applications. Last week, they handled more than 600 visitors daily. Some parents had to wait an hour to meet with a district employee to complete the application process.

    But Saturday saw no such urgent crowds.

    The questions parents posed were typical: What address do I provide if I'm moving after the first of the year? What if I want my kindergartener to go to a different school than my third grader? How do I get into the school around the corner? When do I find out which school my child will get?

    Unlike during the week, parents got immediate replies, without standing in long lines or holding on a telephone line.

    Still, some face-to-face interactions were a struggle. When a Bosnian couple who didn't speak English arrived at Blanton Elementary in St. Petersburg, Principal Deborah Turner was happy they brought along their first grader.

    She figured out what grade the girl will be in next year by asking her the name of her current teacher, then asked where she'd like to go to school. No response.

    "Would you like to come to school here again next year?" Turner said.

    "Okay," replied the girl, her parents looking on. Turner helped fill out the paperwork, and the girl's parents signed.

    Families said it was more convenient to navigate choice during the weekend, in schools near their homes, than to visit family centers during the week.

    Kathleen Ruckart appreciated it -- though she hates school choice. Her son Johnny will be in kindergarten next year, and she wants him to attend Forest Lakes Elementary, where he is in a prekindergarten program. She didn't realize until she sat down at Countryside High School to fill out an application that she had to pick five schools.

    "I don't have time to read up on every school," she said. "I'm just hoping they give me the first school I choose."

    Lisa Kelepouris visited Clearwater Intermediate to get advice from the principal, but she still wasn't ready to choose a high school for her son. She promised she'd figure it out by Friday.

    "I'm just so afraid that if I make the wrong decision, I'm stuck," said the Largo resident. "That's why I am dragging my feet."

    Cheryl McMahel visited Blanton to get her kindergartener, Avery, into Bardmoor Elementary again next year. She stopped by because her grandmother, who had heard schools would be open Saturday, had pressured her to participate in choice.

    McMahel was glad she came, partly because she discovered that she only had to fill out a one-page form rather than the several pages she expected.

    Said her grandmother, Joan Benovic: "But you wouldn't be here if it weren't for me."

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