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Schools

School plan: Out with the old

Close-to-home vs. choice: You can weigh in on the plan tonight.

By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published September 18, 2007


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Pinellas County officials have spent months crafting a new system for assigning students to schools.

Now it's time for the public to weigh in. The first of three "community input" forums on the new plan is scheduled tonight at Palm Harbor University High School.

The proposed system is a decided break from 36 years of efforts to racially balance schools, ending with the choice plan. The new plan steers students into their neighborhood schools, has no controls on race and attempts to reduce busing costs.

Below are several comparisons between the old and new.

Enrolling ina regular school

Choice plan:Students could apply for a school only in their attendance area. Because they were assigned using a lottery system, it was impossible to know ahead of time whether they were going to get in. Each year, about 20 percent of students did not get their first-choice school. Last year, more than 1,400 students got none of the schools on their list.

New plan: Students would be assured a seat in a "close-to-home" school. Each school would have a zone from which it would draw students. However, students also could get into any other school in the county - providing the school has space and they can get there without a bus ride.

Applying to magnet, fundamental school or other special program

Choice plan: Anyone in the county could apply to one of four elementary magnet schools, nine fundamental schools and several special high school programs such as career academies. Four "area" elementary magnets drew students from the district's southernmost region.

New plan: The application method would be the same, using a lottery to determine which students get into these popular programs. The district will add two, possibly four, magnet elementary schools in 2008. It also wants to add fundamental elementary schools in the next few years.

Bus service

Choice plan: Students got a bus ride to a school anywhere in their attendance area, provided they lived more than 2 miles away. Magnet school students received "arterial" bus service, which is less convenient than regular service. Most fundamental schools received no bus service.

New plan:Students would get a bus ride to their assigned "close-to-home" school only. Magnet students would continue to receive arterial service and most fundamental students, as before, will receive no bus service.

Racial integration

Choice plan:The racial makeup of schools was determined by ratios, which put students into two categories: "black" and "nonblack." No school was allowed to be more than 42 percent black for four of the five years choice was in force.

New plan: There will be no rules regarding race, though the district says it will continue to strive for diversity where possible. When defining diversity, district officials will look beyond the old "black" and "nonblack" categories to consider all races, income levels and academic indicators. In the absence of race ratios, the district will rely on special programs such as magnets and fundamentals to maintain diversity at some schools.

Navigating the system

Choice plan:Many found the school selection process under choice cumbersome. It was so complicated that some parents would apply for a school, never realizing it meant giving up the seat they already had. Early on, most families had to travel to a district center to apply. Applying became easier, but the rules remained difficult to comprehend.

New plan:Parents would be able to apply at any school using a computer kiosk, which would have real-time data on openings at schools across the county. This would allow parents to survey options besides their "close-to-home" school.

Grandfathering

Choice plan:There were two kinds of grandfathering. One was called "extended grandfathering," which allowed students who were in the system by June 6, 2001, to circumvent the choice plan and be assigned to the school they would have attended under the previous assignment plan. About 4,000 of them remain in the system. Regular "grandfathering" meant you could stay in your school, even if you moved to another address in your attendance area.

New plan:Grandfathering refers to the thousands of students who would be allowed to stay in the schools they entered under the choice plan; they wouldn't be forced into their new "close-to-home" school. The School Board has offered to grandfather all students currently in the system. Middle and high school students who accept the offer will continue to get bus service; grandfathered elementary students will not. These policies do not affect magnet, fundamental and other special programs, which have their own grandfathering rules.

Siblings

Choice plan: Policies strongly favored keeping siblings together.

New plan:By its nature, a system of neighborhood schools will keep siblings together. In cases where an older sibling accepts grandfathering and stays in his or her current choice school, a younger sibling entering kindergarten next year or later will not be able to join him. Families could keep the two together, but only at the new "close-to-home" school.

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

Fast facts

Time line to approve new plan

Tonight: "Community input meeting" held by district administrators to get public advice on the plan, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Palm Harbor University High, 1900 Omaha St., Palm Harbor.

Sept. 26: Community input meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Pinellas Park High, 6305 118th Ave. N, Largo.

Sept. 27: Community input meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Oct. 8: School Board members conduct a "listening tour" to get more public opinion, first meeting, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Oct. 9: Second stop on listening tour, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Oak Grove Middle School, 1370 S. Belcher Road, Clearwater.

Oct. 10: Last listening tour forum, 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Countryside High, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater.

Oct. 16: The board takes an initial vote on the new plan after a public hearing.

Nov. 13: The board takes a final vote on the plan after a public hearing.

On the Web

For more detailed information about the new plan, including a Q&A and important documents, go to education.tampabay.com.

[Last modified September 18, 2007, 01:07:23]


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