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Mini fairs demystify magnets

The information events help parents choose a school.

By Donna Winchester, Times Staff Writer
Published February 13, 2008


ST. PETERSBURG - For Cynthia Johnson, the invitation to learn more about the Pinellas School District's magnet and fundamental programs came at a perfect time.

Johnson had just begun searching for a school for her daughter, Makayla, who will enter kindergarten next year. Several schools appealed to her, but as a parent new to the system, she found the application process baffling.

Then she heard about a special effort district officials are extending to families over the next two weeks: a series of mini fairs where parents can learn about magnet, fundamental and career academy programs and complete their applications on the spot.

With Makayla in tow, Johnson attended the first mini fair Tuesday night at Lakewood High School. In less than an hour, she had settled on three schools. A volunteer helped her place an automated phone call to lock in her selections.

"I'm relieved," Johnson said. "I feel confident I completed the process correctly."

The district held a large information fair earlier this month but decided to bring the mini fairs to parents who don't normally apply to magnet, fundamental and career academy programs, said Jim Madden, director of student assignment. The effort is being aimed primarily at families in south Pinellas because they are the ones most likely to be affected by a wrinkle in the district's new student assignment plan, Madden said.

Under the plan, which will return the county to a system of neighborhood schools, 11 of 13 elementary schools south of Central Avenue are fundamentals or magnets. They draw students from across the county, or a large area of the county, thus reducing the opportunity for neighborhood kids to attend their close-to-home school.

In other words, the only way those children will be able to attend a school nearby is if they are invited to a magnet or fundamental. And they won't be invited if they don't apply before midnight Feb. 22.

Beverly Hicks, a member of Concerned Organizations for Quality Education for Black Students, attended a training session for community members last month so she'd be prepared to assist parents at the mini fairs.

"You can become intimidated by a process like this," said Hicks, who walked about a dozen parents through the automated phone system.

One was Erica Gainer, who had come to learn more about middle school options. After visiting displays in the school cafeteria, she sat down with Hicks at the phone bank and applied for seats at Thurgood Marshall and Southside Fundamental middle schools for her son, Cardeair, 10.

"A lot of things could happen," Gainer said of the automated phone system. "Here, I have someone who can answer all my questions."

Willette Douglas, a fourth-grade teacher at Campbell Park Elementary, also assisted families at Tuesday's fair. After walking the parents of incoming middle schoolers through the process last year, she learned how daunting it can be.

"They're intimidated," Douglas said. "Plus, there are a lot of details about choosing a school they don't know about, like the requirements for middle and high school programs."

Madden, the student assignment director, thinks the district's efforts to bring the application process to parents is time well spent.

"If folks found out more about a program and completed an application while they were here," Madden said, "that's success."

Donna Winchester can be reached at or 727 893-8413.


Mini fair sites

Four additional mini fairs will be held from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at these locations:

Tonight: John Hopkins Middle School, 701 16th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Feb. 19: Gibbs High School, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Feb. 20: Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary, 1200 37th St. S, St. Petersburg.

Feb. 21: Martin Luther King Jr. Center, 1201 Douglas Ave., Clearwater.


[Last modified February 13, 2008, 00:09:02]

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