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Pinellas parents say new plan will hurt schools

A mostly black crowd expresses fear of a return to a segregated system.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published September 28, 2007

Kishaw Hillsman, a Tyrone Elementary School student, watches as her mother, Yvette Jackson, fills out a questionnaire at the community forum on a proposed student assignment program at John Hopkins Middle School in St. Petersburg.
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
[Edmund D. Fountain | Times]
Pinellas County school officials listen to residents' concerns over a proposed student assignment program at John Hopkins Middle School.

ST. PETERSBURG -- Scores of south Pinellas County residents told school officials Thursday night that the new student assignment plan would make their children's schools worse, not better.

The predominantly black crowd of 170 parents, grandparents, teachers and community leaders worried that the new plan, built around a system of neighborhood schools, would set back 30 years of desegregation. The result, they feared, would be fewer resources, more below-average schools and lower test scores.

While participants at similar community meetings in the last two weeks in Palm Harbor and Pinellas Park were direct, those who came to the meeting at John Hopkins Middle School were downright frustrated. For almost three hours, the microphones were lined four and five people deep.

Mary Alice Saunders told school officials she has been watching the kids who pass by her window on their way to Bay Point Elementary, a magnet school.

"It seems to me that most white kids are in the best magnet programs," said Saunders, who is black. "I would hope that you would see a way to make sure you're putting black kids in the schools as well as white kids."

Willie Felton, a retired black educator and grandfather, urged district officials to follow through on their promise to make sure all students have access to peers from multiple cultures and diverse backgrounds.

"My one concern," Felton said, "is that you ensure there are sufficient resources to meet the needs of a diverse student population."

Nikki Barfield was so concerned about the lack of options in south Pinellas schools that she said she may have to delay having more children so she can send her son to private school.

"I'm not rich," said Barfield, who is black, "but I won't gamble on his education."

Many school officials including Mary Brown, the School Board's only black member, worried as recently as last week that the African-American community had not spoken up on the proposed student assignment plan. Hundreds of other parents, most of them white, have been contesting parts of the plan since superintendent Clayton Wilcox and other district leaders began crafting it last summer. As it turns out, Thursday's meeting drew the largest crowd.

The new student assignment plan would replace the 4-year-old choice system, which followed 32 years of busing for desegregation. The proposed plan would divide the district into eight "attendance areas" for elementary schools, six for middle schools and seven for high schools. Every school would be surrounded by a zone, and students would be assigned to the school in the zone where they live. Students could attend their zone school or apply for a magnet program, fundamental school or another special program.

Board member Janet Clark said she was disturbed but not surprised to find that so many black parents perceive an unequal distribution of resources in the district's schools. Clark and Linda Lerner were the only two board members at Thursday's meeting.

"The predominant feeling tonight was there are haves and have-nots," Clark said. "The fear seems to be that south county will become even more of a have-not than it is now."

While concern over a loss of diversity was the main topic, several other issues surfaced at the meeting. A group of Riviera Middle School parents asked that the district reconsider the proposed closing of their school. Several other parents expressed dismay at a "reverse sibling preference" that 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.

But by far the main topic of the evening revolved around maintaining diversity and ensuring that children have options for high quality schools. A recent St. Petersburg Times analysis suggests that the number of well-integrated schools would drop to 25, down from 50 under the current plan. While more than 40,000 students attended such schools under the choice plan, the new plan would cut that number in half.

As the meeting wound down, parents continued the discussion in the parking lot.

The same frustration was evident. "All we want is what's best for our kids," said Tammi Ervin, a mother with one child at Bay Point Middle School and one at Gibbs High. "But I think their minds are already made up."

Times staff writer Thomas C. Tobin contributed to this report.


FAST FACTS: What's next?

School Board members will conduct a "listening tour" to get more public opinion.

  • Oct. 8: 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.
  • Oct. 9: 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Oak Grove Middle School, 1370 S Belcher Road, Clearwater.
  • Oct. 10: 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 28, 2007, 02:26:34]

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