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    School picks hint at snags ahead

    With many students staying where they are, the odds and obstacles are clearer, as are emerging trends.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 16, 2003

    If you are a ninth-grader hoping to get into Palm Harbor University High School this fall through Pinellas' new school choice plan, it doesn't look good.

    If you're a white student who chose Lakewood Elementary, which was one of the most popular choices among African-American students in St. Petersburg, you can bet on going to school there.

    And if you're a black student from St. Petersburg who has been bused across the county the past few years, don't count on getting into the school down the block.

    Even before the school district's computer matches students with schools, the odds that particular students will get to attend the school of their choice are becoming clearer. So are the challenges school officials face in filling spaces in certain schools, calming parents whose children will be shut out of the most popular programs and meeting racial percentages that prevent south Pinellas schools from becoming predominantly African-American.

    For each of the district's schools, district officials know how many seats are reserved to accommodate the 83,000 students who exercised their grandfathering rights to remain in the schools they attend now. They know how many seats are left in each school for the 19,000 students who filled out choice applications and for the 8,500 students who didn't fill out the paperwork and will be assigned spots. And they know how many students listed each school as one of their choices.

    Several trends stand out:

    If all students got their choice, Pinellas schools would be racially segregated. Some will not get one of their top choices; for the next four years the district will ensure that schools in south Pinellas do not become predominantly black. But the initial choice applications raise serious questions about the prospects for a racially integrated school district after the four-year transition.

    Most parents want their children to remain in the schools they now attend. The notable exception is the large number of African-American children who hope to attend school close to home, perhaps for the first time.

    Some schools already are nearly full, and they will have little room for students who hope to get in through choice. Palm Harbor University High School already is close to its listed capacity. It is over capacity for incoming ninth-graders, with hundreds hoping to still get in. That's because of the grandfathering rule that guarantees a spot to students who already attend, and the extended grandfathering rule for students who would have entered the school under the old zoning policy.

    School grades appear not to be a factor for most parents. Some D-rated schools were among the most chosen. Some A-rated schools were among the least chosen.

    Three new schools in St. Petersburg are in demand, especially among African-American students. The new James Sanderlin Elementary, Douglas Jamerson Elementary and Thurgood Marshall Middle School were among the most chosen in Area A, which includes predominantly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg.

    Perhaps as early as this week, the school district will start the computer matching process that will assign students schools based on their choices and factors such as available seats and race. Letters will be sent out to parents shortly after the computer program is run. The district has said the process would be complete by mid March at the latest.

    In test runs, about three of every four students got their first or second choice of schools. School officials point out that the actual results may be higher or lower than that. Given the choices parents have made, the district will have to perform a delicate balancing act to keep certain schools full and racially balanced.

    "What that tells me is that people want to stay close to home unless you give them a good reason to do otherwise," said School Board member Nancy Bostock. "If we want to keep the schools integrated, we've got four years to give them that reason. We've got a little time to make that work."

    * * *

    Principal Ray Tampa knows the district will have to send students to his school who didn't choose to go there. The irony is that Lakewood Elementary School in St. Petersburg is one of the most chosen schools in the entire district.

    Here's the problem: Lakewood was the first or second choice for 427 black students, but only 63 nonblack students named it their first or second choice. That adds up to a serious racial imbalance.

    Under an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, no more than 42 percent of each school's enrollment can be African-American children. Based on the number of students who decided to stay at Lakewood next year, the school would be 61 percent black. And most of the children who want in are black.

    "We've got plenty of students who want to come here," Tampa said. "But we are having trouble meeting the racial guidelines."

    What that means, Tampa said, is that "the black kid who chose us as their second choice won't have a ghost of a chance of getting in here. But if you're nonblack, you could get in if we were your 20th choice."

    Miles away, principal Charles Craig has the opposite problem.

    At Orange Grove Elementary in Seminole, several black children chose to leave the school. No black children made Orange Grove their first or second choice.

    Orange Grove, which received an A grade from the state, has other signs of popularity. It is 80 percent full just based on students returning.

    Many of the black students who chose to leave have likely applied to schools in St. Petersburg where they live. Roughly 125 of Orange Grove's 360 children are bused in each day.

    "If parents have a choice between five minutes to school and riding a bus for 35 minutes to our school," Craig said, "that's a no brainer."

    * * *

    In North Pinellas, racial limits are not a factor. There are few African-American children, so the 42 percent cap is not an issue. Also, the new rules place no limits on the percentage of nonblack children.

    The challenge there involves too few seats to meet the overall demand.

    Nowhere is that more of a problem than at Palm Harbor University High.

    It was the second most chosen high school in the district. (Gibbs was first, with hundreds of African-American students wanting in.) Palm Harbor already is close to capacity based on the number of students returning and those allowed in under the extended grandfathering rule. At Palm Harbor, there is little room for anyone else. The ninth-grade class is over capacity, according to the district's numbers. So the 453 ninth-graders who wanted to become Hurricanes have dim prospects.

    "That was going to be our first choice, but I didn't think we could get in," said Linda Roberts, whose son Brian is entering ninth grade next year.

    "I had (the choice application) all filled out," Roberts said, "but at the very last minute we decided we couldn't take that chance."

    Ultimately, the Roberts made Countryside High their first choice. There is room for many of the incoming ninth-graders who made Countryside their first choice. For second choice? Not necessarily. So, if the Roberts had made Palm Harbor their first choice and Countryside their second, they might have been shut out of both.

    "When you get into those capacity issues here and there, those little ripples start to become a tsunami," said Jade Moore, executive director of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association.

    There are oddities throughout the school choice data.

    Tarpon Springs High and Tarpon Springs Middle were the least chosen high school and middle school, respectively, in the district. Yet both schools proved popular among students already attending.

    Tarpon Springs High has one of the highest return rates in the district. It already is filled to 83 percent of its listed capacity and has fewer spots open than any school other than Palm Harbor. But few who aren't already there want to get in.

    It's the same with Tarpon Springs Middle.

    "I think it's a geography issue for us," said Tarpon Springs Middle assistant principal Wynne Black, whose school received an A rating from the state last year. "We have everything to offer. We're just hard to get to."

    Both of the Tarpon Springs schools are geographically isolated -- tucked into the northwest corner of the district. And among their nearest neighbors are the very popular Palm Harbor schools.

    "Look what they have to the north and to the west: water and Pasco County," said Moore, of the teachers union. "But they're doing fine. The fact is that Tarpon will always be the first choice among people in Tarpon Springs."

    -- Times computer-assisted reporting specialist Constance Humburg contributed to this report.

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