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Schools plan needs work
By A TIMES EDITORIAL
Published August 12, 2007
The latest version of Pinellas County's proposed student assignment plan reduces the options for high school students in ways that may produce unintended consequences and are at odds with a survey of parents that School Board members used as a guide. The seven tightly drawn high school areas may help reduce busing costs, but they generally limit students to two choices. That's not the balance most parents are seeking, and school officials need to better justify their proposal or redraw it with fewer high school areas.
Overall, the new plan takes dramatic steps to restore the lost connection between neighborhoods and their schools, a link broken by an unwieldy attempt to provide unfettered school choice across the county. As a work in progress, the broad framework continues to hold some promise. Most families will no doubt be pleased with the provision of a guaranteed school close to home.
But one of the most significant and unanticipated concerns with the latest version is that it gives high school students fewer choices than elementary students, which is the mirror opposite of a January poll. That survey, commissioned by the appointed School Choice Task Force, found that 80 percent of elementary school parents rated schools close to home as "very important." Only 40 percent of high school parents said the same. That high school number dropped to 31 percent when asked this way: "Have schools closer to home but with fewer school choices or options."
Superintendent Clayton Wilcox said he increased the number of choice zones to provide better continuity from elementary to middle to high schools and to save on busing. Both are valid objectives, but the change from two to seven is a considerable leap. The savings on busing are not as large as once predicted. Strong neighborhood connections are important to high schools, but that's also a time when students branch out academically and socially. The district's expansive selection of academic magnets and specialized programs help meet those differing needs, but there often is more demand for many of the popular programs than there is room. That makes it even more critical that high school students are not so limited in their choices because of their home address.
The School Board is scheduled to meet Tuesday to again discuss a plan that it considers nearly ready to be discussed at multiple public meetings and hearings through the fall. Much work remains, particularly for magnet and fundamental program policies and for fashioning a clear neighborhood school guarantee. Given the advice they already have received through the survey, though, board members would be wise to wait no longer to revisit the high school options.