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Pinellas parents demand better options

First public hearing on a school assignment plan centers on keeping siblings together.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 19, 2007


PALM HARBOR -- Scores of parents sent a clear message to Pinellas school officials Tuesday night about the district's proposed student assignment plan.

They want the option of keeping their children at their current schools, and they want younger siblings to be able to attend those schools, too.

While the parents applauded a revision of the original plan that will allow children to be "grandfathered" into their present schools, many expressed concern about a so-called "reverse sibling" preference.

That part of the plan would require families who want their children to attend the same school to move older children to a younger sibling's "close to home" school when the plan goes into effect next year.

"It's mind-boggling to me that they would even consider separating my children," said Beverly Pizzano, whose two older children attend Ozona Elementary. Pizzano wants her youngest child to attend kindergarten at Ozona next year, even though other schools are closer to her home.

"I'll sit on the School Board members' doorsteps until they change their mind about this if I have to," she said.

About 150 parents attended the "community meeting" at Palm Harbor University High School, the first of three forums designed to give families a chance to speak out on the plan. The new student assignment plan would replace the 4-year-old choice system, which followed 32 years of busing for desegregation.

Two additional meetings are scheduled for next week, one at Pinellas Park High and another at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg.

Jeff Hochberg, a parent of an 11th-grader at Tarpon Springs High School and two other children at Carwise Middle School, said Tuesday that he felt high school students should have the most choices under the new plan, rather than limiting them to two or three "close to home schools."

"On the maps as they're drawn, it looks like at the elementary school level you have eight choices," Hochberg said. "But at the high school level, you have only two."

Brendan Callahan, a chemistry teacher at Dunedin High School, said he hoped the district would include in its plan a middle years International Baccalaureate program to serve as a bridge between James B. Sanderlin Elementary, which has a primary years IB program, and the district's two IB high schools.

Callahan said he and his wife feel so strongly about the program at Sanderlin that they are willing to drive their daughter 40 miles a day from Dunedin to St. Petersburg.

And Sandi Rooney, whose children attend South Ward Elementary, asked school leaders to reconsider their decision to close one middle school and three elementaries including South Ward.

"We're talking flat-out displacement," Rooney said. "The rug is being pulled out from under our children."

But the main topic of discussion as the night wore on was how the new plan would handle siblings. As the time scheduled for the meeting's end came and went, Liz Becker of Palm Harbor stood at the microphone.

Becker, close to tears, said she doesn't know how she'll break the news to her 4-year-old daughter that she may not be able to go to school with her older brother.

Among the parents who attended Tuesday's meeting were many who said they only came to listen. Valerie Fowler of Dunedin said she's feeling more comfortable with the plan now that she knows her son will be able to stay at Lake St. George Elementary.

"We jumped through hoops that were on fire with the choice plan," Fowler said. "We were told to find the perfect place for our child, and we thought we did. To hear they were changing the whole thing was pretty disappointing."

Sue Ritt of Tarpon Springs said her concern was that many students, including her daughter, attend Tarpon Springs High for the band program, even though it's not their "close to home school."

"We'd really like to see the district turn Tarpon into a magnet school," Ritt said, "so kids from all over the county can go there."

After the meeting, School Board member Jane Gallucci said she had heard from many of the parents via e-mail, so none of their concerns came as a surprise.

"We have 106,000 children in the district," Gallucci said. "We won't be making any decisions until we've heard from parents at the other community meetings."

The board is scheduled to vote on the new student assignment plan in November.

FAST FACTS: What's next

  • 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.


[Last modified September 19, 2007, 01:03:42]

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