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8,500 kids left with little choice

Their parents didn't fill out school choice paperwork, so the district will decide which schools they attend.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 9, 2003

The parents of more than 8,500 Pinellas County students failed to fill out school choice applications, leaving them little choice about where their children attend school next year.

The students account for nearly 8 percent of the school district total. They will be assigned to schools where they can help achieve racial balance and fill schools where demand was low.

School Board members and superintendent Howard Hinesley have said they would like to offer those students some limited choice. But that would come after the more than 19,000 children whose parents participated in the choice plan learn whether they got their choice of schools for next year. And it would happen after school officials learn which schools have room and which schools are racially balanced.

"We want to give everyone an opportunity, even if they didn't fill out an application before the deadline," said School Board member Nancy Bostock. "But their choice may be extremely limited."

The majority of parents should already know where their children will attend school next year. More than 83,000 children already have been placed. They fall into three categories: They will return to the school they attended this year; they are moving on to the middle school or high school they would have attended; or they got into a fundamental or magnet school.

It's the fate of the remaining 19,000 students -- the ones who put in a choice application and are awaiting word -- that will make or break the new choice plan.

Parents of those students won't have to wait much longer. The long-anticipated "computer match process" is expected to be set in motion soon.

Hinesley is reluctant to predict a date because he already had to back off a target because of delays in entering all the data into the computer. But now the data have been entered, and the application information that was inconsistent or incorrect has been cleaned up.

Nothing will happen, however, until after Tuesday. That's when the School Board is scheduled to vote on some last details regarding the choice plan. Sometime soon after that, the district is expected to run the computer matches. Then parents must be notified by mail.

"I'm anxious to get this thing done," said School Board member Carol Cook. "Right now everybody's hanging in limbo."

The original plan was to do the computer matches in January. However, it took longer than expected to get the application data entered in the computers. And there was a surprising amount of data to verify or clean up. School officials had to do some detective work to straighten them out.

In some cases, families changed addresses after turning in the choice application -- sometimes more than once. That made it tough to determine which school zone they might be in, and even tougher to actually contact the family. In a few instances, parents of current high school seniors filled out applications for school next year.

The school choice plan is the product of an agreement between the district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund as the district was ending its three-decades-old desegregation plan. For the next four years, the district will attempt to adhere to prescribed race ratios in schools while trying to give parents their choices among schools.

Given Pinellas County's housing patterns, in some areas the choice plan will require a delicate balancing act.

Though it is expected that most parents will get their first or second choice among schools, that won't be possible for some. At schools that proved popular, some students will be turned away because there's no room and shifted to schools that proved less popular. And some schools will be racially imbalanced if parents are granted their choices.

Since this is the first year under such a plan, school officials and the public still are unsure how everything will turn out.

Though they weren't sure what to expect, school officials and board members regarded the public's participation in the application process as a good sign. School officials sent out notices, made phone calls and knocked on doors at thousands of homes, urging parents to fill out choice application forms. The result was a 92 percent return rate.

"I think that's a pretty good return," Hinesley said.

Board member Bostock agreed but added, "It still bothers me that any parent neglected to send in an application."

In some cases, parents didn't turn in an application because they knew they would not be returning to the Pinellas schools. But school officials fear that other parents failed to apply thinking they would simply send their child back to the school they now attend. Those parents might be very disappointed at the start of next school year.

"I want to see how it all shakes out, but I'm also a little scared, waiting for the other shoe to drop," Cook said. "I just hope we can all look back on it and say, "Well, that wasn't so bad.' "

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