tampabay.com

Even 'choice' may go away

The name, that is. It's one of many changes on the table for Pinellas County schools.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Published May 20, 2007


Pinellas County's top educators are looking to make big changes as they work through the summer on a new plan for assigning students to schools.

The task has been on the district's to-do list for years. But no one knew - until now - whether the result would be a tweaking of the much-maligned school choice plan or a major rewrite.

Superintendent Clayton Wilcox and the seven-member School Board indicated last week at a workshop that they are ready to make major changes. The details will emerge in a matter of weeks.

"It's a different day, " Wilcox said. "This is giving us a really great opportunity to re-invent ourselves."

Some early ideas include features that Pinellas families have been demanding for years:

- More fundamental and magnet schools.

- A solid chance at getting into a school close to home.

- A more predictable progression through elementary, middle and high school.

- A simpler set of rules and easier ways to apply.

All are ideas proposed recently by a countywide task force.

Some board members even like the idea of dropping the name "choice" from the plan, but not because people wouldn't be able to choose a school.

"It's got such a negative connotation, " said board member Peggy O'Shea, who previously served on two advisory panels concerning choice.

"Let's face it, " she said. "The public does not like the choice plan we have today. We've got to change it."

Over the next five weeks, Wilcox and a handful of top administrators will devise the outlines of the new plan and present it to the School Board. Administrators will spend July and early August working on the details.

By late August, as students return for the 2007-08 school year, the board will approve a "final draft" and present it to the public for feedback. The board expects to approve the plan in November, with little time to spare before next spring, when families will choose schools for the 2008-09 academic year.

It wasn't until last week, during a three-hour workshop on choice, that the School Board and Wilcox signaled a willingness to use bold strokes when fashioning the new plan.

"We're really looking forward, " the superintendent said, "not being constrained by what we always did."

For example, board members gave Wilcox the green light to explore increasing the number of attendance areas, which are regions of the county that families must stay within when selecting schools.

There are four attendance areas for elementary schools, three for middle schools and a single countywide attendance area for high schools.

Wilcox and his staff are toying with the idea of doubling the number of elementary attendance areas to eight, increasing the number of middle school areas to four and possibly having two high school attendance areas.

Under that scenario, the areas would be smaller, which would result in shorter bus rides for students. In theory, most families would be in a school close to home.

The board also agreed that Wilcox could explore the idea of increasing the number of magnet programs and ensuring that each attendance area has a fundamental school.

Such a move would address a huge demand. In St. Petersburg, for example, more than 450 students occupy kindergarten waiting lists for the city's six magnet and fundamental elementary schools.

In contrast, fewer than 150 students are waiting for kindergarten spots to open up in the city's 22 regular elementary schools.

While expanding popular programs sounds nice, the details will be difficult to work through.

The district, using input from families, will have to decide what kinds of new magnet programs to offer.

New boundary lines

Another decision: which schools to turn into fundamental schools, which offer a back-to-basics approach with stricter dress codes and requirements that parents sign homework and attend a minimum number of meetings.

A big issue will be where to draw the boundary lines if the district goes with more attendance areas. The task will be more difficult in South Pinellas, Wilcox said, where students' homes are closer together.

The problem becomes especially acute for elementary schools.

With 82 of them in the district, many families are close to more than one. A boundary line could conceivably keep a family from a school down the street that they may want to attend.

As a rule, district officials say they would use major arteries as much as possible, trying not to bisect neighborhoods with boundary lines.

Another issue: What happens when a family finds itself in a new attendance area after the boundaries are redrawn? Can that family stay in the same school or will it have to move to a school in its new area?

District officials are wrestling with how to handle that situation. No one wants to uproot children from their schools, but allowing them to stay could upset the system.

District administrators also will explore ways to establish stronger "feeder patterns" from elementary to middle to high school.

Some patterns already exist, especially among magnet and fundamental programs. In Clearwater, for example, students at Curtis and Tarpon Springs fundamental elementary schools typically go on to Coachman Middle and now have the option of entering the fundamental program at Osceola High.

In considering a possible expansion of the concept, officials used the example of Bauder Elementary in Seminole. Fifth-graders at Bauder generally would be assured of a seat at Seminole, Osceola or Madeira Beach middle schools and later at Seminole High - all within the same part of the county.

Under the choice plan, the possibilities are more numerous. A student who begins at Bauder Elementary would later have a choice of six middle schools and 16 high schools.

No discussion of race

Board members barely touched on the subject of race as they sent Wilcox to work on the new plan.

Race has always been a factor in school assignment, first as the system kept black and white kids in separate schools, then later during three decades of desegregation.

The choice plan's race ratios, which put a cap on black enrollment, officially expired Friday as part of a court settlement designed to ease Pinellas into a new era.

One reason board members did not talk about race is they are waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to decide how far school systems can go as they try to create diversity.

In addition, most board members have indicated they are ready for a system that focuses more on a school's academic achievement than its racial makeup.

"Sometimes I felt the (race) ratios were more important that educational opportunities, " said board member Jane Gallucci. "I think people just really want to go to schools closest to home."

Fast Facts:

The plan, from draft to last vote

Pinellas school officials have set a time line for developing a new student assignment plan. Here are some of the key dates:

June 21

Superintendent submits a draft to School Board with "key elements" of new plan.

Aug. 9

School Board holds workshop on a completed draft.

Aug. 21

Information on the plan sent home with students.

Aug. 23

School Board holds workshop to reach consensus on a "final draft."

Aug. 24-Sept. 17

District administrators present the draft to the public in three community meetings.

Sept. 18

School Board holds workshop to review public feedback.

September, October

More public hearings - this time with the School Board.

Oct. 9

School Board holds workshop to consider public input and review legal issues.

Oct. 16

Initial vote on the plan.

Nov. 13

Final vote. Plan adopted.