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Schools

School choice options are about to get simpler

By LETITIA STEIN
Published September 13, 2006


TAMPA - Hillsborough school officials are taking another stab at streamlining the district's troubled choice plan, promising one-stop shopping this year for parents.

School Board members said Tuesday they hope an improved process will reverse low participation numbers that have contributed to resegregation of Hillsborough schools. Choice was supposed to replace court-ordered busing for diversity, but has had little impact in its four years.

"If we aren't careful about how we craft this, we are going to relegate our school system back to segregation," said Doretha Edgecomb, the School Board's only black member. "That would be totally unacceptable."

Hillsborough received an $11-million, five-year federal grant to establish a choice system that now serves about 6,000 students - or about 3 percent of the student population. The new system folds in other options, including the district's more popular magnet schools, which have a proven track record of getting students to leave their neighborhood schools for a specialized curriculum.

And what about the grant money, asked one School Board member? What value did it have?

"This was a time of transition," said superintendent MaryEllen Elia. "We have allowed ourselves to grow up. We now have a different agenda that supports these same values, but is different."

Hillsborough is closely watching the U.S. Supreme Court, which is taking up a pair of cases expected to define how race can be used to place students. As it waits, the district is cleaning up its choice program. Here's what will change:

Beginning this year, parents can fill out a single form to apply to elementary and middle magnet schools as well as choice options, which are available with and without transportation. This replaces four applications for options that included programs known as "school choice," "open choice," and "special assignment."

"I love the single-page application," said School Board member Candy Olson. "The words are actually understandable to someone who's not a school person."

Along with the complicated terminology, the district wants to phase out special assignments, which allow parents to send children to crowded schools.

Currently, about 11,000 students are specially assigned, although not all were placed on campuses with little room. They should fall under school choice, administrators say. Over time, the district wants to make special assignments available only in rare cases.

Parents will have four chances to apply for school choice during the year. The first are in December and March. Shorter application periods in May and July can take into account newly available seats and families affected by boundary changes, and would give choices to people moving to the area.

Charter schools also fall under the range of programs that the district wants families to consider under an umbrella of school choices.

In an unrelated action, the School Board moved Tuesday to help one charter school, Kids Community College in Riverview. The charter's school bus was recently burned in an apparent act of vandalism. It will get to use one of the district's surplus buses.

Letitia Stein can be reached at lstein@sptimes.com or 813 226-3400.

[Last modified September 13, 2006, 07:00:54]


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