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Pinellas explores fixes for choice

Changes, some based on what Hillsborough County is doing, could undo desegregation efforts, but may be what families want.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published March 31, 2005

LARGO - Pinellas officials are exploring changes to the school choice plan that could dramatically alter its widely scorned method of assigning children to schools.

Among the early ideas pushed by superintendent Clayton Wilcox: fundamentally changing the system to ensure that families get into a school close to home, while allowing those who want other options to shop around.

Under the current rules of choice, all families must go through a lottery to get a child placed in public school. They may or may not get into a school they like.

If approved, the change would make the Pinellas plan much like the one in Hillsborough County, where choice has generated less controversy but resulted in schools that are more racially segregated.

Many Hillsborough schools are less diverse than before that county's choice plan began in 2004, causing some to worry about returning to a time when black and white children attended school separately.

The Pinellas plan, which replaced busing in 2003, has maintained racially integrated schools across much of the county but is criticized by white and black families alike.

One of the biggest complaints is the inability to secure a guaranteed spot in a neighborhood school, adding stress to a process that used to be routine. It also has brought uncertainty to families moving to Pinellas or buying homes in the county.

Black students have been shut out of schools near their homes because of a provision in choice that caps black enrollment at 42 percent.

Wilcox calls the choice system "onerous."

"Nobody's ever come up to me and said, "Choice has improved the educational outcomes for my kids,' " he said in an interview this week. "And if that's the case and I'm in the education business, why am I doing it?"

He added: "Even a lot of the African-American families, who many would argue this is designed to benefit, don't like it. It's nuts."

Wilcox said the district also is exploring a later starting time for high schools and a plan to increase the number of high school attendance areas.

At present, there is one high school attendance area. It allows students a wide choice of schools throughout the county but results in long bus rides. The current high school starting time, 7:05 a.m., requires many students and their parents to rise well before dawn.

If approved, the high school changes would accompany significant modifications to the district's bus schedule, which is the major factor determining when schools open. Limiting high school students to smaller attendance areas is one way to reduce the number of bus routes and provide more flexibility on start times, Wilcox said.

The superintendent also wants to redesign the choice application process to reduce long lines, allow parents to take online tours of schools and allow in-person tours when parents want them instead of at set times.

And he wants to give newcomers to Pinellas a better shot at getting into schools they like. Under the current system, families who arrive in the county after the Nov. 1 choice application deadline fall in line behind existing residents. Many are assigned to schools they never would have chosen.

Wilcox says that's unfair, a stance that has put him at odds with his own staff. "That provoked a tremendous argument in our meeting," he said.

The proposals are far from reality. Some would need to be agreed to by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which represents the plaintiffs in the federal desegregation lawsuit that resulted in a settlement, giving rise to choice. All of the proposals would have to be approved by the School Board, which has scheduled a "miniretreat" May 3 to discuss changes.

Simple changes, such as to the application process, could be initiated this year. More complicated ones, such as guaranteeing more families a neighborhood school, would take longer - perhaps by 2006-07, Wilcox said.

Wilcox plans a round of forums in May and June to hear public concerns about choice and other matters. He said he hopes the public will give the district a better sense of where it stands on the core issue: Are racially integrated schools worth the tumult and inconvenience that aggressive desegregation efforts cause for families of all races?

"You talk to folks who have been engaged in the civil rights movement and you talk to folks who have fought the good fight - I don't think they trust us to operate schools that are racially identifiable," Wilcox said. "But more and more I run into young black parents who are saying to me, "Well I don't know why they did it but here's what I want. I want my kid to go to a school close to a home where I can be there.' "

Wilcox's personal belief: "We're all better off in a desegregated environment."

But he said he also frets about the millions of dollars being spent on buses and special programs at magnet and "attractor" schools. "I think a lot of people would just be happy with great schools as opposed to all that."

In Hillsborough, families have shown a strong inclination to choose neighborhood schools or ignore the choice plan altogether. Only 3 percent of the 47,000 students eligible to participate in choice did so this year.

The result has been a quick return to segregated schools.

Enrique Escarraz, the attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in the Pinellas desegregation case, said he had not heard of Wilcox's proposals. But he said the deepening discussion will probably hasten his earlier plans to approach the district about the way it has performed on elements of the settlement other than choice.

Want to weigh in? Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox discusses the choice plan and invites feedback on a Times-sponsored blog called The Classroom. Go to sptimes.com/classroom.

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