A coveted cluster of schools. A cohesive burg. Childhood bonds. Choice may change all that, ever so slowly.
By MAUREEN BYRNE AHERN
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 11, 2002
SEMINOLE -- When the time came for Keith and Debbie Harriott to move back to Pinellas County, they knew where they wanted to live: a home in this community that would put their two children on track to attend Bauder Elementary, Seminole Middle and Seminole High schools.
Those three schools, along with Oakhurst Elementary, were untouched by a 1971 federal court order that desegregated Pinellas classrooms. Students zoned for these "Seminole schools" never had to worry about being bused miles away. They were guaranteed a desk close to home.
"We wanted our kids to be able to walk to school," said Debbie Harriott, 43, a physical therapy assistant and chairwoman of Bauder's Student Advisory Council. "I don't want them to ever ride a bus."
So the couple bought a home that was practically across the street from Seminole High, which is across the street from Seminole Middle, which is next door to Bauder Elementary.
The Harriotts' children, 10-year-old Katie and 9-year-old Kyle, will stay the course and graduate from the same high school as their father did years ago. The right to stay in their zoned schools, now known as "extended grandfathering," guarantees them a place as long as they don't move. Even down the street.
But students who aren't exempt no longer will have a guarantee to attend the "Seminole schools."
That track is a sure thing only for students who were enrolled in the district by June 6, 2001. Moving to a different address erases the "extended grandfathering" privilege.
The school district's new attendance policy -- controlled choice -- takes effect in fall 2003. Parents countywide must submit their school wish lists for their children by Friday.
"There appears to be a level of anxiety among many parents," said Jan Johnston, principal of Bauder Elementary, which has 80 kindergarten spots for next year, 21 fewer openings than this year.
With 900 students, Bauder is way over its capacity of 587 students and must downsize its incoming classes over the next few years to meet that goal. In the past, students who lived in the neighborhood automatically got a desk at Bauder. Now, incoming kindergarteners must apply for a spot, and even then they aren't guaranteed a desk.
Many families moved into the Seminole community so their children could be part of a tightly-knit group that attends the same schools, lives in the same neighborhood and plays on the same athletic teams.
Bauder, Seminole Middle and Seminole High became the southernmost stable school track in the district, fostering dedicated teachers, loyal parents and supportive businesses. Real estate agents used the schools' good reputations as a tool to sell homes in Seminole, a white middle-class community that many say has a small-town atmosphere. Pupils who started in kindergarten graduated from high school together.
Choice could change that, albeit slowly.
"The whole concept of assigning a particular resident to a particular school will disappear," said Andrea Zahn, the school district's marketing director for the choice plan.
Next school year, the district will be divided into attendance areas. Students will apply to attend schools in their area.
The county will be divided into four areas for elementary school and three areas for middle school. Students will be able to apply to attend any of the county's 16 high schools.
"Traditional grandfathering" allows a student to remain in a school through the highest grade offered. The student must stay in his or her school's attendance area to be eligible.
"Extended grandfathering" allows students to skip the choice plan altogether as long as they were enrolled in Pinellas schools by June 6, 2001, and don't move to a different address. As long as the Harriotts don't move, Katie and Kyle can continue to attend their old zoned schools: Bauder, Seminole Middle and Seminole High.
Seminole Middle School principal Judy LeBoeuf believes most of her students will stay. "I don't anticipate any change right away until the extended grandfathering is exhausted," she said. "I think we're all just waiting to see what happens."
It's too early to tell if choice will water down the strong support that the three schools have enjoyed. With choice, they no longer will be true neighborhood schools; students from Largo, St. Petersburg, Pinellas Park and Madeira Beach will have a chance to attend.
How many is unknown. After grandfathering exemptions, preferences are given to siblings. Thirty-five percent of the remaining seats will be available for the students living closest to the school.
Tom and Tonra Vandegrift, who live in Largo, now have the opportunity to send their son to kindergarten at Bauder next year. "We've heard very good things about Bauder," said Mrs. Vandegrift, 36, who toured the school Monday with her husband.
Belleair Beach resident Desiree Knapp toured Bauder Monday morning, while her husband visited Oakhurst Elementary. Mrs. Knapp, 32, said she likes that Bauder has a gifted program for kindergarteners.
The school received an A last school year in the state's A-through-F grading system that began four years ago. The grades are based on student performance on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.
The school dropped to a C in 2001 because the school's lowest-performing students didn't do well on the FCAT, Johnston said. The community responded with donations and time; the school beefed up its tutoring program.
Bauder has 400 registered volunteers. "They give not only their money, but their time as well," Johnston said.
"They like their schools. Let's put it that way," said Scott Rose, who was principal of Seminole High before becoming district superintendent in 1981. He held the position until 1990.
Rose, who lives in Seminole, said the choice plan has caused some anxiety here. But over time, things will settle, he said. "The positive side is that parents now have a choice," he said.
"I think once people are exposed to the wonderful things happening in all of our schools parents may be willing to look at other schools than the one right down the street," said Zahn, choice's marketing director. "But we realize it takes a while."
The zone lines have disappeared and been replaced with "attendance area lines." The county is divided into four areas for elementary schools and three areas for middle schools. The whole county is one area for high schools. Instead of being assigned to a "zoned school," a family can choose from among the schools in its attendance area.
The absolute last deadline is 7 p.m. Friday. All of the application paperwork must be in school district officials' hands by then.
All students who want to attend Pinellas schools next fall. Most have turned in applications, but thousands still have not.
Family Education and Information Center at PTEC, 3420 Eighth Ave. S, St. Petersburg, 552-1595
Family Education and Information Center at Robinson Challenge, 1101 Marshall St., Clearwater, 98-2858
8 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday
Bring the student's original birth certificate, the student's Social Security number and proof of residence. If a child is entering grades 1-12, also bring a recent report card.
If you are filing a declaration of intent, take it to the school by dismissal Friday or to a family center by 7 p.m. Friday. If you are mailing it, it needs to be postmarked by Friday. (District officials changed their minds on that point Tuesday.) But if you are turning in a choice application in hopes of changing schools, that must be hand-delivered to a family center by 7 Friday night.