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School changes to recast choice

Other plans discussed at a retreat include revised start times and reorganizing the bus route system.

Published May 4, 2005

LARGO - Pinellas school officials took their first steps Tuesday toward reforms that, if enacted, would dramatically change the way the district operates.

During a "mini-retreat," School Board members and superintendent Clayton Wilcox spoke of a system "redesign" that would better accommodate families and prepare the district for a time when race will not be used to set school enrollment.

Among the changes being considered: a less bureaucratic choice plan that would make it simpler for families to apply for a school, eliminate lines at application centers, ensure siblings stay together in the same school and reduce long bus rides.

For example, more families would be allowed to apply online or by phone, and thousands of kindergarteners would be spared the application process altogether in cases where the district already knows they will be paired with an older sibling. Many of the changes would be made in coming months, in time for the next choice application period.

Wilcox also disclosed that he is making a strong effort to change school start times, especially at high schools, where a 7:05 a.m. opening bell forces sleep-deprived teens to rise well before dawn. He said he is working with Laidlaw International Inc., the nation's largest school transportation company, to try to reorganize the district's bus route system, which determines when schools open.

At present, Pinellas' yellow buses fan out to schools in three time slots or "tiers." Wilcox said Laidlaw will explore the possibility of reducing it to two tiers, which could lead to later start times.

The School Board also began mapping how the district will look after the 2007-08 school year, when - for the first time in more than three decades - a student's race will not factor into where he or she may be enrolled.

Board members crafted a list of "guiding principles" to frame what they said would be a broad public discussion about the district's future in the post-busing era. The first principle was that the district would encourage racially integrated schools, though board members wondered how far they could go given court rulings that will make it illegal to enroll students by race when Pinellas comes out from under its federal court order in 2008.

Board member Mary Brown said the district should make integration a "core belief" and make "every effort" to maintain racially integrated schools. She called them "a necessity."

But other board members wondered whether preventing a return to racially segregated schools was possible while adhering to another principle they adopted Tuesday - to offer families a "meaningful choice" of schools.

The debate kept coming back to the fact that most families - no matter what their race - will choose schools close to home. In a county where housing patterns remain segregated, that means some schools likely will be predominantly black or all-black for the first time since 1970.

"I don't know that I put value on integrated schools by themselves," said board member Carol Cook. The district should encourage and celebrate racial diversity, she said, but can do little to enforce it.

"I don't see any way that we could mandate it," board member Janet Clark said.

The board will appoint a task force to study the issue and come back with suggestions. It also will conduct its own "listening tour" to gauge public sentiment.

Wilcox urged them to proceed quickly so the issue doesn't stretch too far into 2006, when four of the seven board members will be up for re-election. Wilcox suggested the board may want to avoid politicizing such a major decision about the district's future.

He said his staff will come back to the board soon with more details about changes to the choice plan. Among his more controversial proposals Tuesday was a plan to more evenly distribute incoming high school students who do not participate in the choice plan and must be assigned to schools.

Last year there were 1,300 such students. Their nonparticipation in choice is generally an indicator of low parental involvement, district officials say. Many of them tend to be from low income families and are low achievers on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test.

Last year, Wilcox said, they were "dumped" by the hundreds into selected high schools with little thought to whether those schools had programs to help them. This year, he said, he wants to use their FCAT scores to place them in schools where they can succeed.

Board members Mary Russell and Nancy Bostock objected. An opponent of the FCAT, Russell said she didn't like to see students placed in schools based on test scores. Bostock argued Wilcox would be unfairly giving fewer options to low performing students.

Wilcox said he was helping them.

"I cannot put 300 or 400 kids in a high school and let them flounder," he said. "As your superintendent, I can't let this go on another year."

In keeping with Tuesday's theme of change, Wilcox also told the board he is planning a major reorganization of the district's administrative staff, including a spate of principal changes to be announced soon. While everyone will be treated fairly, he said, some moves "will be a little harder than others."

He asked the board to brace for some "anxiety around the organization."

[Last modified May 4, 2005, 00:57:19]

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