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Choice forcing earlier decisions

Parents need to apply for their 2004-05 school choice shortly after this new school year starts.

Published June 21, 2003

LARGO - The choice plan has challenged Pinellas parents to think differently about selecting schools. Now it is training them to think ahead.

Way ahead.

That 4-year-old who's going into preschool this fall? She needs to apply for a 2004-05 kindergarten spot by Nov. 1.

The child who just started to think about who will be his fifth-grade teacher? He needs to start choosing a middle school.

Students who finished seventh grade five weeks ago soon will be asked to think beyond eighth grade. They have 41/2 months to choose a high school.

The first school year under the choice plan scarcely will be under way this fall when Pinellas officials launch preparations for the second year. The application period for the 2004-05 school year will be Sept. 1 to Nov. 1. It applies to students seeking seats at choice schools as well as magnet and fundamental schools.

The window is shorter and earlier than last year's application period of Sept. 16 to Dec. 13. It also consolidates regular schools with magnets and fundamentals, which traditionally had an earlier application period.

School officials say the change will allow them to tell students earlier what schools they will be attending in 2004-05. They should know by Feb. 1.

This spring, students who participated in the choice lottery process were notified about the results in mid March. Those who didn't participate gave up their right to choose and were assigned to schools. They weren't notified until mid April.

Jim Madden, the district's choice coordinator, said the new schedule will give the district more time to process applications and conduct the computer run that matches as many children as possible to their chosen schools. He said the change also will allow more time to plot the choice bus schedule, which caused controversy this year when the School Board was forced to rush decisions about school starting times.

The new application period is about one month shorter, but Madden noted the district will be processing far fewer students. The first year of choice required a selection by every student in the district, including those who chose to be "grandfathered" into their existing school.

More than 100,000 students were involved.

The next round of choice will involve an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 students. The bulk of them will be at a crossroads that requires a decision about their educational careers: students entering kindergarten, middle school or high school, or students moving into the district.

Children at other junctures - for example, a third-grader who doesn't like his choice school for 2003-04 - can opt for choice as well. But those situations will be limited.

Madden said he and other administrators who decided on the new application period realized that it was much earlier. But they didn't think it would be a problem for most families.

The schedule for Pinellas differs markedly from Lee County's, which is in the sixth year of its choice system.

In Lee County, families can apply for the following school year in February and March. Pinellas families must apply several months earlier, in the fall of the previous year. That reduces the number of months that newcomers can move in and get a good shot at a desired school.

In Lee County, officials take fewer than three weeks to process applications, run them through the computer and notify students of their placement for the following year. Pinellas takes about three months to perform the same task.

Lee County places about 16,000 students through choice; Pinellas about 27,000.

Pinellas officials said this week they are taking steps to improve the choice process. A committee of school officials is studying the idea of allowing parents to apply for schools using an automated phone system.

Another committee is studying how choice will affect the first day of school, which is Aug. 5. Even before choice, some students would show up at the wrong school on the first day. But officials expect the confusion to increase this fall because of the dramatic changes brought about by the new system.

In addition, a group of administrators, teachers and parents will be studying the possibility of a second computer run in the spring. While most of the desired school seats will have been taken by those who applied for the first computer run, a second run for those who missed out would at least give them a modicum of choice.

This year, about 8,500 students who missed the first run had no input on their school for 2003-04.

A second computer run "gives parents the feeling that they have more choice, rather than the district just assigning them," Madden said.

The School Board has asked for an update on choice improvements at its July 28 workshop.

Choose early and often

WHO: Pinellas public school students who want to apply to regular, magnet and fundamental schools.

WHAT: New choice application deadlines.

WHEN: Sept. 1 through Nov. 1.

WHY: To get students placed earlier. (The old deadline was Dec. 13.)

- Note: In the past, students who applied for magnet and fundamental schools knew their status before the choice deadline and were able to participate in the lottery if they didn't get into one of the special programs. Under the new system, students apply for regular schools, magnets and fundamentals all at one time. They still will be able to select five regular schools and separately apply for as many magnet and fundamental programs as they like.

[Last modified June 21, 2003, 01:17:59]

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