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Educated opinions

Nine high school students speak out on the assignment plan and diversity in schools.

By DONNA WINCHESTER, Times Staff Writer
Published December 9, 2007

Students in the Poynter Institute's high school program listen to Poynter faculty member Al Tompkins during a workshop. Nine of the program's 35 students, including Brian Cunningham, 17, lower right, Shakura Dedmon, 16, behind Cunningham, Hakim Effiom, 17, next to Dedmon, and Rebecca Morales, 18, behind Effiom, participated in the roundtable discussion.
[Jim Stem | Special to the Times]

For two years, the Pinellas School Board has listened to parents, teachers and community leaders talk about how best to assign kids to schools. They've heard from a 47-member task force. But nobody asked students what they thought. Until now. With the board poised to sign off this week on a sweeping new plan to replace the 4-year-old choice plan, the St. Petersburg Times asked nine Pinellas students in the High School Journalism Program at the Poynter Institute for their views.

How much attention have you paid to the student assignment plan and how important is it to you?

Rebecca: I know only bits and facts about this story, but I do think it's important because I have a younger sibling who's going to go through this, and I want to make sure he has the best education that's geared to what he wants to be.

Shakura: I care a lot about the situation. When they start doing this, I'm not sure if Bogie (Boca Ciega) will be as diverse as it is now. I have a lot of friends that are different races, and I fear that if this happens, I'm going to be forced to have one type of friend.

Justin: I go to Seminole, which is predominantly a white school, so not a lot of people know or care. They just assume that, "Oh, you're in the neighborhood, you're white, you go to Seminole. Okay. Good for you."

Alexis:My mom is a teacher at North Shore Elementary, and my brother's in eighth grade right now. And he would actually be going to Lakewood. My mom has decided that if this were to happen, she would probably drive him to the fundamental high school, which is really far away.

What is your perception of the demographics at your school?

Brian: All the white kids that we have are in the magnet program. In traditional Lakewood, probably one-fourth of the classroom is white and the rest is black.


Hakim: For me, it's kind of the opposite because I'm in the magnet program. I'm usually the only black kid in my classes.


Rachel: At Countryside, there are mostly white kids. Our school's basically divided up between diversities in this huge hallway - whites hanging out with whites, blacks with blacks.


Mike: It seems most classes I'm in are predominantly white. I really don't see a lot of black kids with white kids. It's usually the black kids over in the cafeteria area and then the white kids over in the courtyard.

Do you think it's important for kids of different races to go to school together? Why or why not?

Emily: Within PCCA, it's mostly white kids. We figured out that in visual arts, there are 4.5 black kids. Four are black and one girl is biracial. Out of 45 kids, everybody else is white. I think it would be good to see more diversity.


Brian: I'm actually fine with the way Lakewood is now because I really don't care about race. I've been in classes with the same kids for the last four years of high school. You kind of get attached to them no matter what color they are.

Rachel: I think it's really important for kids to see and hear how other people act and talk and what their different lifestyles are like.


Justin: I think it's important that kids go to a school with other races and stuff to experience diversity, but I don't think it's important enough that we bus people past different schools just to get that little bit of diversity. I mean, it probably was important back in the '60s and '70s because there was a lot of bigotry back then. But I don't think that bigotry exists today.

So how hard should the district work to make schools diverse?

Brian: I think that busing kids from all around the county to go to a school is complete bull. I have to wake up at 4 in the morning to get ready for school. Then I have to get on the bus around 5, and we have to go all the way to Tierra Verde to pick up two kids and drop them off at Bogie ... just because they need the whole racial diversity thing.


Emily: But I think that if kids are willing to go farther away, then it's something that should be allowed because in a lot of schools, even now, there isn't a lot of diversity.

Are you attending your closest to home school?

Mike: St. Pete High was my No. 1 school choice. The school I was zoned for, Pinellas Park High, there's a lot of fights and there's like only one honors class. I wouldn't thrive in that environment.


Emily: I'm zoned for Lakewood, but I don't actually go there. I wouldn't particularly want to go there unless I was in the CAT program.


Shakura: Bogie was my first choice. The main reason that I didn't choose to go to Gibbs or Lakewood was because it's local and I live there. I wanted to be somewhere different.


Justin: The reason my parents bought the house they bought was because they looked at the schools and they decided on Seminole. They wanted their kid to live near Seminole and be zoned for Seminole and go to Seminole.

Pretend for a minute you're just starting high school. What would be more important to you, a school close to home or a racially integrated school?

Emily: I'm not trying to dodge the bullet, but I suppose it would depend on what school was the closest.


Hakim: I think how far the school is from your home is a lot more important than racial diversity because that's gonna translate into how many of your friends are going to that school and how much easier it is to get to the school for extracurricular activities.


Alexis: I think what's most important is what you want to learn and what you want to focus on. So I don't believe it matters that much how far away the school is or who goes there. It really doesn't matter to me.

If you were a School Board member, how would you vote on this plan?

Mike: I would have to say no because I think that you should go to whatever school you want to.

Justin: I would say no. I think we should modify the plan. I think we should make it a choice program that's racially blind. There should be a rule that if somebody is too apathetic to choose a different school, they should go to their local school.

Shakura: I would vote no on the plan. We need to modify it. But to make it colorblind? I don't think that is the reality of the situation. To sit here and say that we don't see any colors, I don't think that's necessarily true.


The students

Emily Gibson,

16, a junior in the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High

Brian Cunningham,

17, a senior at Lakewood High

Mike Chittenden,

16, a junior at St. Petersburg High

Shakura Dedmon,

16, a sophomore at Boca Ciega High

Hakim Effiom,

17, a junior in the Center for Advanced Technologies at Lakewood High

Rachel Hessling,

17, a senior at Countryside High

Rebecca Morales,

18, a senior at Countryside High

Alexis Newsome,

17, a junior at St. Petersburg High

Justin Sanak,

17, a senior at Seminole High

What would the proposed new plan do?

It would change the way Pinellas students are assigned to schools, steering most into a school close to home. 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 that "close-to-home school" or apply for a magnet program, fundamental school or another special program. They also could ask to attend any regular school in the county, provided that school had space and the student could get there without a district bus ride. For more details, visit

What's next for the student assignment plan?

The School Board will hold a workshop from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Tuesday to discuss changes to the plan. Board members may take a final vote on the plan at a meeting following the workshop, or they may decide to delay the vote and schedule a special meeting for Dec. 18.


[Last modified December 9, 2007, 00:29:28]

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