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Mayor's goal: Keep Temple Terrace kids in city schools

Leaders are working on a parent survey to figure out why so many city children don't go to the school in their attendance zone.

By JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK
Published March 26, 2006


TEMPLE TERRACE - When Mayor Joe Affronti Sr. looks at the public schools in Temple Terrace, he worries.

The schools don't seem to keep city residents, Affronti observes, and in some instances don't even include residents within their attendance zones. The result, he says, is schools that don't have the community feel that the city seeks.

Almost 18 percent of Temple Terrace children attend private schools, for instance. And though just 14 percent of the city's families with school-age children live in poverty, more than 60 percent of the children attending the city's schools qualify for free lunches.

Rather than sit back and complain about the county school district's inaction, though, Affronti and the City Council are actively seeking changes.

"My objective is to try to get the Temple Terrace kids into Temple Terrace schools," Affronti says.

The city has found willing partners in the school district.

The district's pupil assignment division has begun crafting new attendance boundaries for the city. And the chief of staff's office is about to embark on a survey of Temple Terrace parents to determine what might make the city elementary schools - Lewis, Riverhills and Temple Terrace - more attractive to residents.

"A large number of families use school choice," chief of staff Ken Otero said. "It would be nice if we can find out why and get them back to school in Temple Terrace."

The first part of the equation is the easy part.

Temple Terrace has expanded in recent years, adding new segments to the east and south. Yet many of the children living in those areas now are zoned to Folsom Elementary in Thonotosassa.

Folsom, it turns out, is over capacity, while Riverhills and Temple Terrace have some open seats. The school district is trying to reassign students to open seats anyway.

"I think we can move some students," said Bill Person, general director of pupil placement. "If we could do it, we'd love to accommodate them."

New boundaries could be set before the start of the 2006-07 academic year.

The second piece requires a bit more planning and perseverance.

To begin, the city and school district want to find out what factors are keeping so many Temple Terrace students out of the city-based public schools. Each elementary school's enrollment includes less than 80 percent of children from within its attendance zone - Lewis is the lowest with just 67 percent - leaving room for 20 percent or more to win entry through special assignments and other choice options.

School district and city leaders are working out the details of a survey that would go to each family in the city that has school-aged children. Parents would be asked about educational programs and any other issues that might affect their decision not to send their kids to their zoned school.

"Once we get that information, then we can look at programs, because then we'll know what our parents want," said Gwen Mora, a retired educator who heads Temple Terrace's school improvement task force. "We want to make sure what the citizens of Temple Terrace want for their children in the schools is what is provided."

She and others have the idea of bringing magnet-type curricula to the schools, based on the demonstrated interest. The school district has found limited success with "attractor" programs, less intense than true magnet schools, to lure families to specific schools.

Without committing to anything, Otero supported the idea of gaining community input for improving local schools.

"We are sharing ideas to see how we can draw kids back to Temple Terrace schools," he said.

Mora said she hoped to have information early enough to see an initial round of ideas put in place by August.

City and school district officials welcomed their closer ties. Just a few weeks ago, relations weren't so warm.

As recently as January, Affronti voiced frustration about the county school district's lack of contact with the city. He even went so far as to speak favorably before a state House committee about a bill that would allow large school districts to split into smaller units.

The idea was that Temple Terrace might serve as the hub of a district that included like-minded nearby communities.

Now, though, Affronti and the City Council have backed away from that concept. Instead, they're working within the existing governance framework to push for the changes they desire, both short- and longer-term. Other ideas include transforming Greco Middle School into a city high school and allowing the city Police Department to provide antidrug education in the schools.

"We're trying very hard, and the district is trying very hard, for us to work together," Affronti said.

Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at 813 269-5304 or solochek@sptimes.com.