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    School choice notices get delay

    There is still data entry work to be done, and board members are rethinking some of the choice policy.

    By KELLY RYAN GILMER, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 8, 2003

    LARGO -- Don't bother running to the mailbox every day.

    Pinellas parents might have to wait until mid-March to find out where their children will attend school this fall.

    The school district originally promised to process choice applications by the end of January or, at the latest, early February.

    That's not going to happen. And the district hasn't decided exactly when the letters will go out.

    "It's premature," said Andrea Zahn, the choice communications coordinator.

    Data clerks are still entering information into a computer from thousands of choice applications. Superintendent Howard Hinesley has told them not to rush; he said he would rather the process be accurate than fast.

    Hinesley and other choice officials say they are not sure when the data entry will be done.

    School Board members on Tuesday also decided to rethink two parts of the choice policy that will affect how the computer match process works.

    They want to make sure that district employees can bring their kids to the school where they work. Under a proposal that board members will begin studying next week, the privilege would not be granted if the child's presence in the school violated court-ordered racial caps.

    Board members also want to tighten a policy that allows siblings to attend school together. As their choice policy stands now, children who live together as a family have a chance to attend school together, but no guarantee.

    They want to guarantee that siblings can attend the same school. Children who live in the same house but are not immediate family will continue to have a good shot at attending the same school, but no promise.

    The board will vote on the policy changes Feb. 11, so choice applications won't be processed until after that.

    The deadline for submitting choice applications for 2003-04 was Dec. 13. With so many still sitting in piles but not entered into a district database, officials don't know precisely how many students applied.

    They do know that thousands did not.

    What will happen to those children?

    That's also a work in progress.

    District officials had planned to assign those children to schools after all other children are assigned. That troubled board member Mary Brown, who fears those children won't end up in schools that can meet their needs.

    "This district needs to become more student-focused," she said. "We can't let a computer arbitrarily decide."

    Hinesley said Tuesday that parents who did not submit choice applications before the deadline probably will have one more chance. They probably will be invited to visit a Family Education and Information Center and be allowed to pick among the schools with open seats.

    If parents don't take advantage of the second chance, the district will decide which school their children attend this fall.

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