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    Choice hands 9 of 10 their wish

    Computer matchups of students to schools portend an easy transition to the new choice system this fall.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 21, 2003


    LARGO -- The first year of school choice in Pinellas may start more smoothly this fall than many skeptics anticipated, according to the initial results of a computer program that matched students with schools Thursday night.

    Seventy-seven percent of the students who participated in Pinellas' new school choice plan received their first choice of schools for the 2003-04 year. Another 10 percent got their second choice.

    Taken together, that means nearly nine out of 10, or 16,457 of 18,954 students, who took a chance on the choice system got what they wanted.

    But 1,270 students, or 6.7 percent, did not get any of their choices.

    Those are the highlights of the long-awaited computer match completed late Thursday night that will determine where thousands of Pinellas students will attend school this fall.

    The computer match finished at shortly before 11 p.m. It will be a couple of weeks before confirmation notices are sent by mail to all parents.

    Even before the computer match was done, roughly 83,000 students already were assigned to schools. Those are the students who wanted to return to the school they already attend or wanted to advance to the middle school or high school they would have attended under the old system. Add those numbers to the students who went through choice and received their top pick, and 96 percent of the school system's students were granted their wish.

    "We're very pleased with it," said Pinellas school official Jim Madden. "It's kind of what we had hoped for."

    After the years of controversy and months of buildup, the actual computer match process was pretty mundane.

    The district's senior programmer, working on an IBM laptop, entered a set of numbers about 10 p.m. to start assigning random numbers to each student's name. The numbers were 4-4-0: the winning Cash 3 numbers from Wednesday's Florida Lottery.

    Minutes later, applications administrator Michelle Smith announced very matter of factly, "All the preliminaries are done. We're ready to do the first match."

    Once the process started, it took about 30 minutes for the computer to run through all the matches.

    In short, the computer went school by school and grade by grade assigning students by first choice, then second and so on. The random numbers were needed to act as a sort of lottery in the cases where there wasn't enough room for all students who picked a certain school and a certain grade as their first choice.

    The computer also had to factor in racial balances. Racial ratios still will be used during the first four years of choice.

    Even though the computer match is now completed, the process is far from over. In fact, parents shouldn't expect to learn anything for another couple of weeks.

    Now that more than 100,000 children have been assigned schools, school officials need to work on the others who still haven't been assigned.

    Starting probably on Monday, school officials will make some difficult calls to parents who filled out the paperwork but didn't get any of their school choices. They'll offer those parents some limited choices, based on where there still is room and on the race of the child.

    Once that is accomplished, they will work on the 8,500 children whose parents did not fill out a choice application. They'll assign those children to schools based on which schools still have room and whether the child's race will help balance the school's demographics.

    Then the letters will go out to all parents at once.

    The school choice plan is the result of a couple of years of negotiation between the school district and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. It is an agreement that enabled the school district to get out from under a three-decades-old federal desegregation order that brought forced busing to Pinellas County in 1971.

    Under that system, which determined how students were assigned to school as recently as this year, more than 10,000 children were bused to schools for desegregation. Most of those students were black, traveling out of a neighborhood in St. Petersburg to another school farther north.

    By comparison, more than 9,700 students face being assigned to a school not of their choosing under the new choice system.

    What's next for school choice

    Now that the computer match has been done, Pinellas school officials know where most students will attend school this fall. Here's what happens next:

    -- School officials will call parents who did not get one of their top five choices of schools. Those parents will be offered limited choices. Those calls could start as early as Monday.

    -- Some 8,500 students whose parents did not fill out a choice application will be placed. Although school officials will try to meet their needs, most will be placed in schools where there is room or where they are needed to achieve racial balance.

    -- Letters will be sent to all parents, probably the first week of March.

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