Attracting the right mix?
By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
ST. PETERSBURG -- A grimace crosses the face of Lakewood Elementary School principal Ray Tampa, who is not happy about the numbers before him.
Despite the school's efforts to sell itself as a "center for wellness and environmental studies," only 153 "non-black" students chose Lakewood in the first round of school choice. That compares to nearly 900 African American students who picked the school, located in a predominantly black St. Petersburg neighborhood.
"I hate it," Tampa says of the pain that disparity could cause.
Because so few white parents opted to send their kids to Lakewood, the district may have to cut the school's enrollment to keep the ratio of black students within a court-mandated limit of 42 percent.
That means fewer spots for neighborhood black students. It also means Lakewood would need fewer teachers, which could force the district to reassign the dynamic young instructors Tampa has been hiring in recent months.
But much more is at stake than just one principal's staff.
Enrollment numbers show that most of the "attractor" schools in black neighborhoods across south Pinellas are struggling to draw white students. That poses a direct threat to school choice, the controversial plan that is supposed to maintain student diversity in a post-busing world.
If the attractors don't attract, the district may never find enough white families willing to send their children to schools in minority neighborhoods. And when the court-ordered race ratios expire in 2007, Pinellas could return to the largely segregated system it had before busing.
The primary problem, according to school officials, is that most Pinellas parents -- 74 percent -- chose to leave their kids in their current schools, which in most cases is close to home.
Another factor: Most of the attractors are new and unproven. Some parents are leery of their marketing pitches, which include promises of "micro-societies" and marine science programs.
"It looks great on paper, but you wonder how they are going to put this into play," says Donna McCall-Thibodeau, a white parent in Kenneth City.
District administrators say they aren't worried about the attractors' slow start.
They note that well-established magnet schools in black neighborhoods -- including Perkins, Bay Point and Melrose elementaries -- drew more than enough white students to stay within the court-ordered race ratios.
The same is true for middle and high schools in southern Pinellas, though that may be because parents of older kids are more willing to send them greater distances to school.
School Superintendent Howard Hinesley says it takes time to build credibility, especially at the elementary school level.
"The parents' first reaction is they don't want to send their children that far," he says. "A lot of people fear the unknown."
Volunteers, not conscripts
In the first year of school choice, seven attractor elementary schools -- Lakewood, Fairmount Park, Campbell Park, Douglas Jamerson, Maximo, James B. Sanderlin and Gulfport Montessori -- did not draw enough white applicants.
To bring them within the required race ratios, the district is turning to students without a choice: those who didn't fill out their applications.
But there's a problem: The point of choice is to attract willing volunteers, not conscripts.
"If we do it well, the kids will come," says Bob Poth, the principal at Jamerson Elementary School, which is marketing itself as a math and engineering school. "I fully intend to have a waiting list the second year."
Poth and the other principals will need to win the hearts of white parents such as McCall-Thibodeau, who wants to keep things simple when her 5-year-old son, Conn, enters kindergarten in the fall.
With a night job at the post office, she will rise each morning after three or four hours sleep to get him off to school. She was willing to send him 8 miles to Perkins Elementary, a magnet school with a popular and well-established arts curriculum.
Perkins was her first selection in the choice program. But she ended up with her fifth choice, Blanton Elementary, which Conn will attend for at least a year.
McCall-Thibodeau says she is open to entering the choice process again to explore other attractor schools. But she'll be looking for real programs, not marketing pitches.
Several principals south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg would love a minute of her time.
Getting out the message
At Campbell Park Elementary, principal Jim Steen is working with downtown businesses, hoping to attract the children of nearby office workers seeking convenience.
With aquariums in every room, a marine lab, aquatic themes on the walls and a manatee skeleton on order for next year, Campbell Park hopes to drive home its marine science theme and its strong affiliation with the University of South Florida. That theme, as well as Spanish instruction, will run through most lessons.
"I feel like my program is no different than a magnet school," Steen says. "We think it's a matter of parents knowing where we are."
At Lakewood, principal Ray Tampa will continue to sell the school's focus on wellness and the environment. The program will expand next year with more field trips to hospitals and nature sites, and more instruction on nutrition and exercise.
Besides a lab with 30 iMac computers, the school's hardware includes a salad bar in the cafeteria and an exercise machine that takes body measurements such as heart rates. Tampa and his staff also have designs on a grant that would pay for an exercise trail.
"We'll be fine," Tampa says. "It's just a matter of continuing our efforts to get the message out."
At Sanderlin, principal Denise Miller says she is giving daily tours to parents of students who didn't get into any of the five schools they selected under choice. She also is seeing a few private school families seeking other options.
Sanderlin offers a "primary years" International Baccalaureate program that features a "hands-on approach to learning, with a focus on higher order thinking."
The curriculum includes Spanish instruction and an emphasis on world affairs. The cafeteria will be called Le Bistro, and the physical education field the Outback. Wireless laptops will allow students to venture out to gather data.
"I'm not worried at all," Miller says of attracting white families. When some say they are "just looking," she warns them not to tarry. "I honestly tell them I anticipate a waiting list within a year."
Poth, who became principal of Jamerson in January, has added three features that weren't on display when parents went school shopping last year.
One is a Spanish program. Another is the math curriculum he used for gifted students at his previous school, Ridgecrest Elementary.
The third: a pledge of top-flight teachers for every class. Poth is hiring only teachers who promise to complete the rigorous National Board Certification program.
On top of that is a curriculum that highlights math and engineering, while also emphasizing art and music.
Like Miller, Poth is seeing private school parents and those who didn't get any of their choice selections.
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