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Schools

Parents decry decision to drop sibling preference

School officials didn't tell them, they say.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published April 17, 2007


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BROOKSVILLE - In the fall of 2003, parent Dawn Palaez thought she understood the Hernando County School Board's policy for magnet school attendance.

She heard district officials tell parents that if one child was admitted to Nature Coast Technical High School or another magnet school through the lottery-and-portfolio application system, younger siblings would automatically be admitted when they came of age.

So when her older son, Stephen, won a place at Nature Coast, Palaez figured her two younger children would follow.

Too bad she missed an afternoon School Board meeting two years later, when the rules changed.

Now some board members are wondering whether they should have done a better job of publicizing that policy change, in which they eliminated the automatic preference for applicants whose older siblings graduate before the younger children enroll.

"Should we have sent out letters to those people to which it applied?" asked board member Jim Malcolm. "I think it perhaps would have solved some problems had that been done."

He said the School Board might consider rescinding the change this spring, even before it undertakes a review of its controversial magnet school admissions policies.

"I think the policies can continually be tweaked to take care of people who fall through the cracks," Malcolm added. "I think we need to take a serious look right now at the impact of that rule change, and see if we can repair it."

It may be the last chance for parent Joyce Thompson, whose eighth-grade son entered the Nature Coast lottery and is currently on the waiting list for next fall. Her eldest son, Matthew, is currently a senior and will graduate in May, so the sibling preference no longer applies.

Thompson didn't hear about the 2005 policy change until shortly before the deadline to submit a portfolio application for next school year.

"They didn't tell anybody," she said.

There's a little more time for Palaez, whose younger son, Ryan, is a sixth-grader at Powell Middle School.

The problem will come when he's in eighth grade, and his older sister, Casey, is a senior. Under the current policy, he will have to take his chances in the lottery or submit a portfolio.

"My youngest has said, 'I'm not going anywhere except Nature Coast,' " Palaez said. "He looks up to his brother and wants to go where he goes."

At least five or six families are in a similar predicament this year, said school services director James Knight.

He said the 2005 policy change came after parent complaints that siblings were filling the magnet schools, leaving little room for other applicants.

"People were feeling, you know, that only a few families could get in," Knight said.

School Board member John Sweeney said he's skeptical about the whole notion of a sibling preference for magnet schools.

"To have students admitted based on what their siblings are good at - it doesn't really sound like a magnet concept to me," he said.

Currently half of the applicants to the magnet schools - Nature Coast, Chocachatti Elementary and Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics - are chosen by lottery, and the other half are admitted through a portfolio system.

"We need to take a look at this whole admissions policy," Malcolm said. "Is the portfolio too stringent? I've heard people say it's too subjective. There's a lot of perception out there that the process has been tainted."

Board Chairman Pat Fagan said that a review should probably wait until new superintendent Wayne Alexander begins work this summer.

But he said the board might act more quickly on the sibling issue, if families have been harmed by underpublicized changes to the policy.

"We as a board need to take a very close look at that, to make sure everyone is being treated equally," Fagan said. "If a mistake was made and those parents were told something different, then it's never too late to deal with that issue."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or 352 848-1431.

[Last modified April 17, 2007, 06:53:21]


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