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Delay plagues choice process

The deadline for 2004-05 school choice applications is Nov. 1, but parents of 12,000 students are taking their time. District officials cringe - and wait.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published October 11, 2003

Thousands of Pinellas County parents are putting off the complicated task of choosing schools for their children next year, and officials are worried about what that could mean.

An estimated 16,400 students are expected to fill out choice applications for the 2004-05 school year before the Nov. 1 deadline. But as of Friday, only 4,600 had applied.

If parents wait much longer, school district officials foresee an 11th-hour rush that could hit like a dam break, creating big crowds at registration centers. Long lines frustrated thousands of parents in August when they showed up at the last minute to register their children for the current year.

Officials now must process 72 percent of next year's applicant pool in less than half the time they had expected. The eight-week application period began Sept. 1.

"What we're saying is, "Don't do this to yourself,"' said choice spokeswoman Andrea Zahn, who urged parents to start applying next week. If they don't, she said, "it will be extremely crowded" later on.

Crowds already seem inevitable. Working nearly 12,000 applications into the 15 business days that remain will require the district to process an average of nearly 800 people a day. That's about 400 students a day at each of the district's two Family Education and Information Centers.

Of particular concern to the district are the estimated 7,500 kindergarten students who need to register, then apply for the next school year. Because those students aren't in the school system yet, the district has no idea who they are and must resort to newspaper, radio and television appeals to reach their parents.

As of Friday, fewer than 2,400 children had registered for next year's kindergarten classes.

Others who need to apply soon are fifth- and eighth-graders who will enter middle and high school next year and don't have the "extended grandfathering" privilege.

Extended grandfathering lets students attend the middle or high school they would have attended under the old zoning system, before the choice plan came along.

About 8,500 fifth- and eighth-graders do not have extended grandfathering and need to fill out a choice application for a school. About 7,000 still have not done so. If they don't apply, the district will choose a school for them, and it may not be a school they want.

Students who won't be entering kindergarten, middle school or high school next year and plan to keep attending their current school do not need to apply. But they can if they want to change schools.

Officials say there are several ways parents can avoid crowds and other problems during the next three weeks:

- Consider applying at several satellite locations the district will open in the next week.

- Bring the correct documentation when registering your child for kindergarten. One in four parents are being turned away because they lack the right paperwork.

- Consider mailing or faxing the choice application, but check closely for errors. One in every eight applications that are faxed or mailed have to be sent back because of "parent error," the district says. The most common errors: using a choice application to pick a magnet or fundamental school; failing to sign the application; failing to register a student before sending in an application; and choosing a school in the wrong attendance area.

A separate phone-in application system has been set up for magnet, fundamental and high school career academy programs. Parents aren't rushing to apply to those schools, either. Of the 10,000 applications expected, about 5,800 have arrived.

Last year, parents had from Sept. 16 to Dec. 13 to apply for schools. Officials shortened the period this year to build in more time to process applications. Last year's schedule left too little time to plan bus routes and set school start times.

[Last modified October 11, 2003, 02:08:56]


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