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Schools

School strategy emerging

High schoolers would be able to apply anywhere in the county.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 15, 2007


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Pinellas school superintendent Clayton Wilcox on Tuesday framed his proposed student assignment plan in the most detailed terms yet, clarifying several key issues.

Wilcox and his staff laid out ways high school students would have a broader choice of schools than initially indicated. They also specified how they propose to place students in magnet and fundamental schools under the new plan, details many parents have been anxious to see.

The School Board, meanwhile, gave Wilcox little direction, jumping from topic to topic and engaging in lengthy debates that netted few decisions. With so many details to consider, the board is straining to get a draft of the plan ready for public comment in mid September.

Board members seemed stuck on whether to close Southside Fundamental Middle School and merge it with nearby Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle in St. Petersburg. Two members, Jane Gallucci and Janet Clark, said they liked the merger idea. Board members Mary Brown and Nancy Bostock strongly opposed it.

The three remaining members expressed no preference or requested more information on the cost to maintain Southside, one of the district's most successful schools but one with an 81-year-old building that has long showed its age.

"My sense is you won't see us come back with a merger," Wilcox told the board. In an interview later, he said, "We're reassessing the wisdom of it."

Supporters of the merger said it would be a cheaper option that would give Southside students access to a new building. Marshall opened in 2003.

District official Jim Madden said the merged school would "maintain the integrity of the fundamental program."

Critics said the schools were too different to merge. Most of Southside's students come up through fundamental elementary schools; most of Marshall's do not.

An apparent board majority seemed in favor of giving bus rides to fundamental students for the first time. But no one agreed they had a consensus.

The board did agree to complete its work at two marathon meetings Aug. 23 and Aug. 30. At Gallucci's suggestion, it will use a facilitator to keep focused.

"We've got a lot to do. A lot," Gallucci said in an interview. "We've got to do things in a more systematic way."

What the day lacked in finality, it made up for in clarity, at least when it came to what Wilcox is proposing.

His plan to organize the district's 15 traditional high schools into seven attendance areas initially appeared to tightly confine students to schools in their corner of the county. In addition to the areas, each school would have a zone from which it would draw its students.

But Wilcox said Tuesday that students would be able to apply for a "special attendance permit" enabling them to enroll at any high school in the district, providing the school had room. The only other caveat: Students would have to find their own ride or get one from an "arterial" bus route rather than one that came close to their home.

The number of open seats is a big unknown. Under the choice plan this year, seven of the 15 traditional high schools had dozens of openings.

Wilcox said high school students who don't like their zone schools also could apply for magnet programs, the fundamental program at Osceola High, career academies or new "centers of excellence" designed to help students enter the work world after graduation.

Wilcox said the high school attendance areas and zones were needed to define where the district's obligations ended when it came to providing bus service for each student. State law requires districts to provide bus service to high school students who live farther than 2 miles from a school.

"I honestly think at the end of the day, high school kids will have the most choice," Wilcox said.

The other details he outlined are built around his plan to divide the district into eight attendance areas for elementary schools and six for middle schools.

Each school would be surrounded by a zone, and students would be assigned to their zone school. Or they could apply for a magnet or fundamental school. Four schools would be turned into fundamentals, giving each area a fundamental school.

Among the details Wilcox announced Tuesday:

- Each middle and elementary magnet school would draw some percentage of students from across the county and some from their "home" area. The idea is to give students who live near magnets a neighborhood school like anyone else.

- Students at schools slated to become fundamentals would be given a chance to join the new program. Any remaining seats would go to students in a school's attendance area. If there is room after that, the schools would take applications from anywhere in the county.

- Students now enrolled at existing fundamentals would be allowed to stay there until they graduated. Their younger siblings could enter the same school later but would not get bus service. Fundamental elementary students still would be automatically admitted to a fundamental middle school and to Osceola Fundamental High.

An "arterial" bus system using major routes would transport magnet and fundamental students, as well as high school students who chose other schools. A system within the regular bus system, it could be the engine that gives students more choice and keeps schools racially diverse, Wilcox said.

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

On the Web

Ask questions of Times reporters, review recent coverage and examine key documents. To find out more about Pinellas' proposed student assignment plan, go to education.tampabay.com.

[Last modified August 15, 2007, 00:39:53]


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