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    Deadline passes, placement begins

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 15, 2002

    Phew.

    It's over -- at least the application part.

    The choice deadline, as you probably know, passed Friday. In the coming days and weeks, employees in the Family Education and Information Centers will finally catch their breaths -- and catch up on paperwork.

    They'll need to type thousands of choice applications into the district's computer system. Only then will we know just how many students completed their applications on time.

    And how many did not.

    Which is a subject worth contemplating.

    For the first four years of choice, schools must be racially balanced. Students who did not turn in applications on time will be used to maintain those balances, assuming that those who fill out applications didn't happen to choose schools that meet race ratios.

    Last week, the district issued basic rules about what happens now.

    Current students who didn't apply?

    Don't even try to turn in an application on Monday or any other day. It won't be accepted.

    The district will choose schools for those students where they don't upset the racial balance and where there is room after all other students are placed. The district will send the students letters to let them know just where those schools are.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley has told School Board members that some students might be able to keep their current schools. He said the district would try to find these students a school relatively close to home.

    But there are no promises.

    Have a student who will enter Pinellas schools next fall? That student won't have a choice either. That child's parent will have to go to a Family Education and Information Center to register the student. (Bring the child's original birth certificate, proof of residence and the child's Social Security number; if the child is entering grades 1-12, also bring a recent report card.)

    After the child is registered, the district will place the student in a school. The family will be notified of the placement by mail.

    Finally, what happens to a student who begins Pinellas schools sometime this year? Before Feb. 3, go to your zoned school to register for the rest of this school year. After Feb. 3, the family centers will handle all student registrations. The district will pick a school for 2003-04 for these students, too.

    This is likely to be a source of debate during the next few months.

    Mary Brown, a new School Board member, was appalled to hear the plan. She urged Hinesley to develop a system in which the school district tries to place these students where their academic needs will be met.

    Hinesley didn't embrace that idea.

    Other districts, for instance, accepted a second wave of applications. Parents could visit a family center, find out which schools are available and then pick among those. Not necessarily a great choice, but better than no choice.

    The board will meet in a workshop in early January to hash out this and other choice issues.

    Soon after, statistics should start trickling in. The numbers should give them an idea about whether the outcry against choice will grow or fade.

    Besides knowing how many students made no choices, we'll know how many students got their first or second choices. We'll know whether busing costs will increase dramatically. We'll know whether three new schools being built in St. Petersburg will open with dozens of empty seats.

    In other words, stay tuned.

    * * *

    Families should continue to direct choice-related questions to the Family Education and Information Centers.

    The St. Petersburg center (552-1595) is located at 3420 Eighth Ave. S. The Clearwater (298-2858) center is at 1101 Marshall St.

    * * *

    This column, like students, will take a break during the winter holidays. It should resume shortly after that with lots of choice issues still on the horizon. The choice lottery and parent notification surely will inspire more questions.

    So, continue writing me with concerns and observations. In the meantime, happy holidays.

    -- Send questions about choice to Kelly Ryan Gilmer, and please indicate whether your name can be used in the column. E-mail ryan@sptimes.com. Write to the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731. Or fax 893-8675.

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