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Ratios leave empty classrooms

Some Pinellas schools will be only two-thirds full due to rules that schools must have a black student population not greater than 42 percent.

By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 26, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG -- During the first year of school choice, hundreds of African-American children in St. Petersburg will be bused out of their neighborhoods, leaving behind new schools that are only two-thirds full.

Pinellas school officials acknowledged Tuesday they are limiting enrollment in several elementary schools, including the brand new Douglas Jamerson and James Sanderlin elementary schools in south Pinellas.

The reason, in part, is that not enough nonblack students want to attend schools in predominantly black neighborhoods.

That means hundreds of students who wanted to attend the two brand new schools -- as well as the rebuilt Campbell Park, Fairmount Park and Gulfport elementaries -- will be forced to choose another elementary school, even as their preferred classrooms sit empty.

"One of the loudest booms we're going to hear," said School Board member Jane Gallucci, "is when these moms see these brand new schools in their neighborhood that are half-empty, and the NAACP has shut them out of those schools."

The new choice plan goes into effect in the fall.

The limited capacities at the St. Petersburg schools will be discouraging news to African-Americans who saw school choice as their chance to send their children to school close to home after years of being bused out of their neighborhoods.

"It's a shame," Gallucci said, "because we're going to have another group of elementary students shut out."

Although school officials quietly have fretted for more than a year over the prospects for racial balance and filling the new schools, the reality is just becoming clear. Parents made their choices of schools in December, listing five schools in order of preference. Late last Thursday, the school district ran the computer match to see who got their wish for next school year.

For the most part, the news has been good. Nearly nine of 10 parents got their first or second choice.

The most troubling trend was that if all parents were granted their choices, the Pinellas schools would be resegregated.

But that resegregation won't happen in the next four years; under an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the district agreed to prevent any school from having more than 42 percent black students for four years.

Another troubling detail is that the capacity listed for schools is something of a moving target. And the results are good for some and bad for others.

At some popular schools, including several north county schools, capacity is being raised to accommodate more kids and make their parents happy. At others, capacity is being decreased dramatically -- not because the schools weren't chosen, but because they were chosen overwhelmingly by one race or another, especially African-American children.

That was making some African-American parents unhappy Tuesday.

At one choice calling center, set up to place 1,200 students who didn't get any of their choices, one African-American mother learned that all four of her children will have to be sent to schools in the northern part of the city.

The mother vowed to consult someone "higher up."

"No profanity but you could just feel the anger," said program worker Deirdre Turner-Colon. "They say, 'Why did you put this choice thing in, and they've been bused from the beginning.' She's not happy. Then again, none of them are going to be."

Even some principals are unhappy, especially with the shifting capacity numbers.

Denise Miller at Sanderlin Elementary knows her latest capacity number, 426, can't be right. She believes the number is more than 600. That wide gap and the confusion is causing her headaches.

This week she worked with people from Apple computers.

"They asked, 'How many kids are you going to have?' " Miller said. "I told them 'I don't know.' "

James Steen, principal at Campbell Park Elementary, has the same problem.

"And I still don't have an answer," he said.

Steen knows his school will be able to hold 684 children in the fall. But the current listed capacity is 288. Once he adds special education children and pre-kindergarten kids, his numbers will grow by 100 or more, but not nearly enough to fill the school.

Steen's school was popular among African-American children. His capacity number was decreased because it will be difficult, if not impossible, to find enough nonblack kids to strike the necessary balance at Campbell Park.

The fact is, it is easier to meet the race ratios with smaller enrollments. For instance, if Campbell Park was filled to its true capacity, another 166 black children could attend the school. But it would require moving another 230 nonblack children to the school.

The Campbell Park example is representative of a larger area of 27 schools in what the district calls Area A, which includes much of St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue.

For the race ratios to work in Area A, the district needs to assign 514 black children and 853 nonblack children to offset racial imbalance.

That's what the district needs. How many do they have?

When you add together the kids who didn't get any of their choices, with those whose parents didn't make a choice at all, the district has 878 nonblack children to assign where they are needed. That would seem to be enough.

But school officials learned long ago that roughly 15 percent to 20 percent of kids simply don't show up where they're assigned. They either go to private school, move, or beat the system somehow.

So, school officials might not have enough nonblack kids to meet the all-important race ratios.

Here's how the race ratios work: According to an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, schools in the area of St. Petersburg south of Central Avenue must have a black population that is between 23 and 42 percent. That ensures that no schools become predominantly black.

That 42 percent cap is difficult when the vast majority of kids applying to a school are black. In north county where there are fewer black students, the 42 percent cap is not an issue.

Add to that the element of "grandfathering," which guaranteed children a spot at a school they currently attend. Under grandfathering, 83,000 of the district's children were assigned to go back to their schools.

With the race ratios and grandfathering, school choice has turned out to be a mind-numbing and politically charged balancing act.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley agreed Tuesday that the new capacity numbers listed for some schools are confusing.

The superintendent has worked for years on the choice plan, and plans to retire at the end of 2004. He acknowledged that he is not happy that the new multimillion-dollar construction projects in St. Petersburg will not result in full schools and uniformly happy parents.

But he remains optimistic.

"It will leave some schools, particularly new schools, under capacity initially," said Hinesley. "But those (schools) over time will fill up because of the programs that are there."

-- Staff writers Thomas C. Tobin and Donna Winchester contributed to this report.

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