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Choice hate turns to love

Many worry over what the new school plan brings.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published August 19, 2007


Like many Pinellas parents, Machon Kennedy found little to like about the school choice plan at first.

The system's way of assigning students by lottery kept families guessing and often disappointed.

It sent kids on the same block to different schools.

It kept some schools partly empty because filling them would have upset race ratios.

It gave new residents few options, often consigning them to faraway schools.

Real estate agents had given up trying to explain its complicated rules to home buyers.

"I thought it was a difficult system to navigate through," said Kennedy, a Tarpon Springs mother of two. "But the end result was great for us."

With that last remark, Kennedy echoes hundreds of Pinellas parents who lately have come to see value in a plan that has been routinely maligned from its inception in 2003.

Now, even as it fades into history, the choice plan finally has a fan club.

The reason: Many parents see trouble in choice's successor - a proposed plan that threatens to push thousands of children out of their "choice" schools and into a zone school near their home.

It's the traditional system of neighborhood schools that many Pinellas parents have been clamoring for since choice began. But for parents faced with having to leave the schools they've come to embrace, choice suddenly looks good by comparison.

If the School Board were to accept a recommendation by superintendent Clayton Wilcox to move next year's first-, second- and third-grade students to their new zone schools, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 children would be affected, according to a Times analysis.

A toxic word

Choice also holds luster for a group of parents like Kennedy, who used the system to get away from neighborhood schools they found undesirable.

The sentiment has surprised district officials, who previously deemed the word "choice" so toxic they didn't want it to be part of the new plan's lexicon.

"I think I'm living in a parallel universe," said School Board member Carol Cook. "Even the people who were able to receive their first choice didn't have anything good to say."

Board member Peggy O'Shea said some of the same parents she remembers criticizing choice in the past are lately singing its praises.

"They hated choice," she said. "They didn't want anything to do with it at the beginning. ... It just proves you can like any school once you get there."

For board member Nancy Bostock, it proves something else: "Parents want for their children what they want for their children. They'll support whatever gets them there."

Wilcox said Friday he is amazed at the outpouring for choice, and added that it's sending a mixed message from the public that has slowed progress toward a new plan.

On the plus side, he said, it says many people like their schools and have gotten accustomed to having choices.

To be sure, some of choice's new fans are grudging supporters who see it as the lesser of two evils.

Others say they want a new plan but not at the cost of uprooting their kids.

Still others just want the district to stop changing course. The new system would be Pinellas' third student assignment method in six years.

"I am tired of the school choice plan, but you need to stop jacking us all around," one parent writes on a Web site started by Kennedy, who is leading a drive to convince the district to "grandfather" all students into their current schools.

Still, the process has brought out true choice fans. Among other comments on the Web site pinellasparentschoice. "Do not ruin a good thing" and "Love school choice. ... Please keep it."

Michaela Oberlaender, an adjunct professor at St. Petersburg College, says she threw herself into finding a school for her son, Nicholas, who entered kindergarten in 2003, the first year of choice.

"We looked at five schools," she said. "The whole family went; we took tours, etc."

Disappointed with their neighborhood school, they applied for a fundamental school, ended up on a waiting list, then entered the choice process.

"We crossed our fingers a lot and got very lucky and got our first choice," she said.

Ozona Elementary, she said, is 5 miles from their home in Tarpon Springs but has been a great fit for Nicholas, who is entering fourth grade.

Oberlaender said she was looking forward to shopping around for a middle school next year, but now will probably be assigned to Tarpon Springs Middle under the new system.

The people who liked choice were always around, she insisted. They just weren't vocal.

Diversity tool

Given the resistance to choice over the years, Wilcox and his top staff members were stunned to discover at a May 31 meeting to see what it wrought.

Roughly 56,000 of the district's 109,000 students were in schools outside the zones the district created around each school for the new plan. Choice's goal of beckoning families from their neighborhood schools as a voluntary diversity tool had worked.

The highest percentage of out-of-zone students was found in elementary schools; 67 percent were outside their would-be zone schools.

More than 80 percent were students who had received their first choices, so the vast majority are presumed to be happy customers.

In a recent survey of 7,700 Pinellas public school families, 72 percent said they were satisfied or somewhat satisfied with choice.

But more than 80 percent said that having a school close to home was very important or somewhat important to them.

Kennedy contends families would have answered differently had they known so many children would be uprooted in the quest for neighborhood schools.

As they head toward a final draft of the plan in the next two weeks, the seven-member School Board is divided on how to proceed.

Wilcox's proposal is to allow middle and high school students to finish out at their choice schools, as well as next year's fourth- and fifth-graders. The rest would have to move if they find themselves in a school that is not their new zone school.

Allowing every student to remain in their current schools would delay the transition to a new system and curtail much of the savings from reduced busing, Wilcox says.

But board members Nancy Bostock, Mary Brown and Linda Lerner said in interviews last week that they are solidly in favor of allowing all children to finish out at their current choice schools.

"It doesn't pass my gut check," Bostock said of Wilcox's proposal. "It just doesn't seem right to move kids out of a school for this reason. It's too many kids."

Two other board members, O'Shea and Cook, said Wilcox's plan seems more efficient and better for the district in the long run, but they expressed strong reservations about uprooting students. Neither has decided for sure.

Kennedy said she was pleased a board majority seemed to be tilting her way.

"I hope so," she said. "I spent most of my summer working on this. I could have been at Busch Gardens."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at or 727 893-8923.

[Last modified August 19, 2007, 01:39:08]

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