District could shuffle pupils

A plan to assign kids to schools close to home would involve some upheaval.

Published June 14, 2007

Pinellas school officials have devised a way to scrap the choice plan and assign kids to schools close to their homes.

But it comes with some pain.

Implementing it quickly would force the district to uproot thousands of kids from their old "choice" schools and reassign them to their new neighborhood schools, starting in August 2008.

Moving more gradually would allow students to finish out at their "choice" schools, but they would occupy seats that otherwise would go to neighborhood students. The transition to a neighborhood school system would take years to play out.

The proposal by superintendent Clayton Wilcox aims to give parents what they have demanded for years - a system where every family gets a chance at a school close to home.

Now it's up to the School Board to decide how to get there, be it fast or slow.

The board meets next Thursday to hear Wilcox's proposal, which bears little resemblance to the 4-year-old choice system.

Scores of details have yet to be sorted out before the plan is approved this fall, but many details have emerged in meetings this month between Wilcox and his top staff. Among them:

-The district would be divided into eight "community sensitive" attendance areas for elementary schools, four areas for middle schools and two for high schools.

-Within each attendance area, every school would be surrounded by a zone.

-Students would be assigned to the school in the zone where they live. If the zone school is filled, they would be assigned to the next closest school. If a family didn't want their assigned school, they could ask to go to another school in their attendance area, providing there was space there.

-Each attendance area would have a "rich variety" of regular schools and two or three special offerings, such as a fundamental school, magnet school or charter school. In addition, families could apply for a seat in a countywide magnet program.

-Each elementary area would have at least one fundamental school, nearly doubling the number of elementary fundamentals.

-Bringing students closer to home would make for shorter and fewer bus routes, saving time and money. School start times would be made more palatable. Money saved would go to special programs.

-Each student's path through the school system would be predictable, with the progression from elementary to high school based on a family's address.

-The district would scrap the current application process, with its numerous rules and multiple deadlines. If a family wanted a school other than the one assigned, making the change could be as simple as showing up at another school to ask if there's room.

-The district would close a handful of schools to reduce overhead as Pinellas enrollment declines.

Jennifer Crockett, a St. Petersburg mother of three who last year ran an unsuccessful campaign for School Board, said she liked the idea of the eight elementary attendance zones. They're smaller than the ones used under the choice plan. "But I'm unsure of the idea of saying, 'This is your school.' "

Pinellas families may have gotten used to choosing schools, Crockett said.

In fact, so many families have chosen or been assigned to schools far from home that district officials are finding it difficult to unwind the choice plan.

Wilcox and his staff discovered the problem earlier this month as they started to research what a system of neighborhood schools would look like in Pinellas.

They divided the county into eight attendance areas with a zone around each of the district's 82 elementary schools. Then they proposed that all elementary students would be assigned to the school in the zone where they live - usually the school closest to their home, but sometimes a school just "close" to home.

District officials found that, based on the 2006-07 school year, a whopping 68 percent of elementary students would be in a school outside their new zone.

Wilcox was incredulous.

"There's no way, " he marveled during a meeting last week. "I just can't believe that choice could have moved kids that far."

The choice plan was designed as a transition away from three decades of busing for desegregation. It encouraged families to try schools outside their neighborhoods as a way to voluntarily integrate classrooms.

While choice fell short of its integration goals, it did get families to venture out.

One example is McMullen-Booth Elementary in eastern Clearwater, which draws students from the far western part of the city, Dunedin, Safety Harbor, Oldsmar, East Lake and as far south as the Highpoint area.

Less than 30 percent of McMullen-Booth's students from 2006-07 were in its new zone.

"It worked perfectly, " Wilcox said of the choice plan, which effectively ended in May.

Still, Wilcox said, the numbers seem at odds with what parents have said in surveys, polls and public hearings - that they want to be guaranteed a school close to home. If that is so, why have so many people chosen schools so far away? he asked.

"Is closest to home really what people want when they say closest to home?"

While some families ended up in schools they didn't want, about 80 percent of those who applied got their first choice.

Deputy superintendent Julie Janssen worried about requiring families to immediately move from their choice school to their new zone school. "You're going to have so much movement that nobody's going to be happy, " she said.

Wilcox and his staff have tried to come up with ways to lessen the pain of a quick transition.

One idea is to let older kids - such as fourth- and fifth-graders or high school upperclassmen - finish out at their choice schools.

The zones around each school are preliminary, their boundaries based on enrollment for the 2006-07 academic year. They were drawn with an eye toward each school's capacity, keeping neighborhood kids together and not forcing them to cross busy roads to get to school.

Details and refinements will emerge in School Board meetings and public hearings this summer and fall. A final vote is tentatively scheduled for the board's Nov. 13 meeting.

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at tobin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8923.