School choice answers on the way

Published April 18, 2007

The uncertainty ends this week for more than 18,000 Pinellas families who recently applied for a school through the choice plan.

The families should receive a letter by Saturday informing them of their child's assignment to an "attendance area" school for the 2007-08 academic year.

A separate process to assign students to "countywide" schools such as magnets and fundamentals ended in February.

According to the school district, 78 percent of students who applied for an "attendance area" school were assigned to the school they listed as their first choice.

The choices, made in March, were processed last week using a random computer selection that factored in the proximity of a student's home to a school.

The computer also took into account students' race, but only in cases where a school's enrollment did not match the racial makeup in its region of the county.

The so-called diversity preference is a much smaller factor than the race ratios that capped black enrollment at 42 percent at any school. The ratios expire at the end of the school year and were not a part of this year's computer match, marking the first time since 1971 that race is not a major factor in assigning Pinellas kids to schools.

The district also has announced a friendlier policy for families who received none of their three choices or who were supposed to apply for a school and did not.

In the past, the district assigned those students to schools with leftover seats, without their input. This year, the district is giving those families a chance to choose among the leftover seats.

The policy affects about 4,600 families, who will be invited to call a district phone line at scheduled times. Instructions are included in the letters arriving this week.

Another first: The letters will tell families their students' exact position on waiting lists. Students who did not get their first- or second-choice school have been put on waiting lists for those schools.

The district will begin calling students off waiting lists as soon as May, said Jim Madden, the district official in charge of choice.

Madden explained that the district lowered school capacities this year because of the class size amendment imposes strict limits beginning in the 2008-09 school year. As a result, entry-level classes such as kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade were smaller than in past years, he said.