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    A Times Editorial

    Unwelcome surprise at Perkins

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published March 7, 2003

    One of the reasons Pinellas school officials have met with public resistance to choice student assignment is that the original plan was put together by attorneys in closed-door meetings, divorced from the needs of schools and the desires of parents. As the district prepares to notify students where they will attend school in the fall, not much seems to have changed.

    This time, the closed-door decisions are being made by a few district administrators, and Perkins Elementary School is the latest victim of their handiwork.

    Perkins is located in the heart of St. Petersburg's predominantly black neighborhoods and was converted to an arts magnet a decade ago. Its rich learning environment has proved so attractive that hundreds of white and black students are turned away each year. The curriculum it offers is schoolwide, unlike middle- and high-school magnet programs, so that all students benefit. In many respects, then, Perkins is the model for maintaining strong and integrated schools once the choice ratios are lifted in four years.

    So what does unitary status director Jim Madden do? He decides to overcrowd the school and anger the families that have supported it. He assigns 671 students there for the fall, which is 121 more than the current enrollment.

    Leave aside, for a moment, that the district is also planning to leave one-third of the classrooms empty in a brand new school, James Sanderlin Elementary, that is just five blocks away.

    The point is that had Madden or other senior administrators bothered to contact Perkins, they would have discovered the school can't easily accommodate more students without compromising its educational programs in arts and music and foreign language. They would have found that portable classrooms would be needed. At a minimum, they would have been told that the magnet waiting list is so lengthy that a more equitable approach to overcrowding would have tapped into those students instead.

    The Perkins decision would be regrettable if it represented a simple miscalculation. Unfortunately, it appears emblematic of an administrative haste as choice approaches its final stretch. Almost daily, Madden and district officials are making key decisions without asking key players. In some cases, they are changing long-established presumptions, such as school capacities, which were vetted through principals and school advisory councils more than a year ago to make sure they were fair and accurate.

    When School Board members were criticized for the secretive process that led to choice, they insisted that schools and the public be involved in the final decisionmaking. Those board members will find, if they will visit schools and talk to principals, that the schools are feeling blindsided.

    A few district administrators are behaving as though father knows best, and that's a perilous way to make decisions. Just ask Perkins.

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