A plan with less stress
As Pinellas builds out, students move less, and parents are happier.
By THOMAS C. TOBIN, Times Staff Writer
Published October 7, 2007
The last time Pinellas officials were forced to move hundreds of students from one school to another, it didn't go so well.
Parents shouted and said School Board members didn't care about kids. They vowed to vote them out of office. One man yelled so much he was escorted from the board's meeting room.
It was 2001, the last year of a rotation system that sent different groups of students every two years to be bused to schools that otherwise would not have met court-mandated race ratios. More than once over the years, things had gotten ugly.
Which is why district officials were relieved that a new system - the choice plan - was already in the works. Race ratios would stay, but choice enabled the district to manage them without mass transfers of students.
No longer would school assignments be tied to where students lived.
Six years later, as Pinellas plans a return to a system of neighborhood schools, families again face the prospect that groups of students could be moved every few years. It is one of the least-discussed features of the new student assignment plan, but a reality in any system that assigns students based on their addresses.
The reason: Things change.
Families cycle in and out of neighborhoods. Once-crowded schools become more sparse. Schools that before had empty seats start bursting at the seams. School zones that made perfect sense when they were drawn become dated over time.
In many cases, the best way for districts to deal with the problem is to move students, a process called rezoning.
The good news, district officials say, is that rezoning likely would come once every four or five years under the new plan and would involve relatively few students.
The reason, they say, is that Florida's most tightly packed county has little room to grow. Demographic shifts are likely to be less dramatic. And while enrollment is dropping, the trend line is gradual.
Inherent in the new plan will be "a little instability for some number of kids," said school superintendent Clayton Wilcox.
"I think there would be a tweaking of the school zone lines," said board member Jane Gallucci.
Before choice, Pinellas had a long history of zone changes. As East Lake and Palm Harbor boomed during the 1980s and 1990s, switching schools was part of the routine for many families, said Gallucci and board member Peggy O'Shea.
Both were raising their children in those years and well remember the upset caused when Curlew Creek Elementary in Palm Harbor became overcrowded. The school went on double sessions as the district struggled to keep up with the growth.
O'Shea says six or seven elementaries, a new middle school and East Lake High have been built in her area of the county since she moved to Oldsmar 23 years ago.
She remembers whole neighborhoods of kids being reassigned.
"It usually worked out once they got there because it was all the same kids," O'Shea said. "They all just went to a different building. Even some of the staff moved with them. ... Moving the neighborhood made it easier."
The dynamic was different in south Pinellas, where the long-running desegregation plan had a larger impact. But the result was similar as the rotation system forced neighborhoods to take turns with busing.
"Every two years they knew this was going to happen," Gallucci said. Rezoning "has been going on in this district for a long time."
She noted, however, that many parents whose children are in elementary school have no memory of those days.
That's a large chunk of the district. Roughly 46,000 students attend Pinellas elementaries, about 40 percent of the system.
Moving students is a common practice in other districts, especially high-growth Hillsborough, where four schools opened this year.
Steve Ayers, Hillsborough's student assignment director, said 10 additional schools are planned over the next three years.
The district deals with growth by either building schools or moving children between schools to balance the numbers, Ayers said.
"Nobody likes change," he said, though most families seem to like their new schools once they get settled in.
"I've seen schools you can't get them into, and once they're there you can't get them out," Ayers said.
Rezone every 5 years
Wilcox, the Pinellas superintendent, envisions setting up a committee that would look at school zones every year. But he expects it will only be necessary to rezone every five years, and only in targeted areas.
"The pressure to rezone is not going to be so great if you do it right on the front end," he said.
That means closing a few schools now to address enrollment declines rather than waiting, Gallucci said.
The School Board has agreed to close four schools, but board member Linda Lerner said last week she wants to revisit that decision.
Gallucci argues the district will have to face the problem sooner or later. Better to transfer those students next year than have even more families cycle into the four schools and become attached, she said.
"As long as you have fluctuations in housing patterns ... you're never going to stay stagnant," Gallucci said. "Nothing's a forever."
Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8923.
Here is the schedule of remaining public forums on the proposed Pinellas student assignment plan:
Monday: 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.
Tuesday: 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Oak Grove Middle School, 1370 S Belcher Road, Clearwater.
Wednesday: 6:30-8:30 p.m. at Countryside High, 3000 State Road 580, Clearwater.
Thursday: Board holds workshop to finalize plan, 9 a.m.-noon at school district headquarters, 301 Fourth St. SW, Largo.
Oct. 16: Board takes an initial vote on the new plan.
Nov. 13: Final vote.
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