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    Long search far from futile

    By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published December 15, 2002

    The Moodys had done their homework, but they decided to change the answer on their final exam at the last minute.

    Michelle and Kevin Moody were among the thousands of parents who visited one of the two Family Education and Information Centers last week as the deadline for school choice applications neared. But they were not procrastinating. They were simply taking their time to make the best possible choice for their 7-year-old son, Tanner.

    "He's my only child, and there's so much pressure that I have to do this right," Mrs. Moody said. "We just kept wanting the best."

    This was not her first school search. Four years ago, she spent months researching preschools when Tanner was 3. She and her husband visited schools, talked to other parents and finally choose Lutheran Church of the Cross Day School in Shore Acres in St. Petersburg. They have been happy with the school and would have kept Tanner there if it were not for rising tuition and the district's new student assignment plan, Mrs. Moody said.

    She started hearing about the plan in August and was intrigued with the idea that Tanner, who is now in first grade, would have a choice of several public schools near their home for 2003. Knowing she had until January to reserve a seat at LCC for next year, Mrs. Moody visited the St. Petersburg Family Education and Information Center and began collecting information.

    She picked up brochures describing the attendance area schools and learned about countywide magnet and fundamental programs. She was surprised at the diversity of programs and was impressed with teachers when she started attending discovery nights and taking school tours.

    She filled out an application for each elementary magnet and fundamental school before the Oct. 15 deadline, the first one under the new choice plan. At the same time, she filled out a choice application, picking five schools that were close to her home.

    In mid November, Mrs. Moody found out that Tanner held the No. 1 spot on the waiting lists at Bay Vista Fundamental and Melrose Elementary, a magnet. Elated, she called Bay Vista to ask the principal about Tanner's chances of moving up on the list. The principal explained that children who attend magnet and fundamental schools can stay through the highest grade level. Since they rarely leave once they are accepted, few children come into programs after kindergarten. Even though Tanner occupies the No. 1 spot on the waiting list for second grade, he told Mrs. Moody, there is no guarantee he will get in.

    Disappointed but still optimistic, she stayed close to her phone Dec. 2, the day the schools started calling parents to let them know spots had opened up for their children.When no spot opened for second-graders at either school by the end of the week, the Moodys started talking about keeping Tanner at LCC.

    Then last week, they received a letter from the choice office that changed everything.

    "The letter said 'We know you're on a waiting list for a magnet or a fundamental school, but you may not know about these two new schools,' " Mrs. Moody said.

    The letter described Sanderlin and Jamerson elementary schools, which were built along with Thurgood Marshall Middle School as part of the settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing for desegregation. All three are scheduled to open in August. The district chose a Primary Years International Baccalaureate Program for Sanderlin and a math and engineering focus for Jamerson. Officials are hoping to attract nonblack students to the schools' predominantly African-American neighborhoods. Because the schools have no student populations that are guaranteed seats through "grandfathering," there are plenty of opportunities for children to get into them, the letter said.

    Deciding it was worthwhile to explore every option, Mrs. Moody went back to the Family Education and Information Center Monday to pick up another choice application "just in case."

    They were not alone. As tension built toward the Friday night deadline, Family Education and Information Center coordinator Sharon McCallister said about 750 families came through the St. Petersburg center on Thursday. At least that many had come to drop off paperwork by 2 p.m. Friday.

    After picking up the application Monday, Mrs. Moody toured Jamerson Tuesday and attended a discovery night at Sanderlin. She returned to Jamerson Wednesday with her husband and Tanner for a discovery night and turned in a revised application to principal Robert Poth putting Jamerson first. They listed it second as well to make a point, although it doesn't increase their chances.

    Although the couple had discussed school possibilities for four months, they had not asked Tanner his opinion until last week.

    "I didn't want to worry him or stress him out about something that might not happen," Mrs. Moody said. "But I underestimated him. He seemed to love Jamerson."

    The Moodys could face another decision. Because students remain on magnet and fundamental lists for a year, and because applying to to choice schools does not jeopardize those spots, Tanner could be invited to Bay Vista or Melrose before finding out if he is in at Jamerson. What then?

    "I absolutely think Jamerson is the best fit for him," said Mrs. Moody, explaining that she would most likely pass on the chance to get Tanner into a magnet or fundamental school at this point. "The only thing that makes me pause is the fact that at Bay Vista, they feed directly into a middle school. That would be so much easier than having to go through this all over again (for middle school)."

    Now that her four-month search for the right school for Tanner is over, Mrs. Moody says she does not regret the time it took.

    "This time last week, I still wasn't comfortable. But now I'm really happy with my decision."

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