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    Choice plan will reshape learning

    School choice is coming by 2003 and administrators are working on innovations to attract students.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2001


    Maximo Elementary School would be transformed into a mini society, with its classrooms made to resemble Main Street USA and its own currency for the school's bank and post office.

    An underwater camera would pipe continuous feeds into classrooms at Campbell Park Elementary, where college professors would help teach students about marine science.

    And Gulfport Elementary School would become the county's first public Montessori program, in which students learn at their own pace.

    The innovative programs that these schools are dreaming up offer a glimpse at what the Pinellas County School District could look like by fall 2003. That year, as part of an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to slowly end mandatory busing for desegregation, parents will be able to choose their children's schools.

    All Pinellas schools have been asked to come up with ways to attract students. But Maximo, Campbell Park and Gulfport are getting more help than the rest.

    The district has applied for an $8-million federal grant to help train teachers, develop lessons and buy top-of-the-line equipment for these three schools. The district will find out this spring whether it won the money.

    Superintendent Howard Hinesley said these three schools need the assistance. The three schools are in neighborhoods where the district has struggled in the past to attract a diverse student population.

    Under the settlement with the Legal Defense Fund, Pinellas schools won't have to maintain race ratios after 2006-2007. But district officials say they want schools to stay integrated -- by parental choice rather than force.

    If that's going to work, Hinesley has said, some schools will have to come up with cool ideas to make students drive past neighborhood schools for those far from home. Hinesley can't say for sure that marine science, micro-society and Montessori would work -- but he's hopeful.

    "Every school won't have to do that," Hinesley said. "Some schools won't have to do anything."

    When choice starts in 2003, the district will be divided into attendance zones that the School Board approved in October. The district will be divided into four areas for elementary school, three for middle school and one -- the whole county -- for high school. Students will apply to attend one of their favorite schools in their area.

    The only students who will be able to choose Maximo, Campbell Park and Gulfport are in area A, which covers parts of St. Petersburg.

    In the next few weeks, district officials leading the transition to choice will meet with principals, who will be encouraged to think about their own selling points and coordinate their plans with neighboring schools.

    The School Board soon will be asked to approve written guidelines schools should use in developing so-called "attractor" programs.

    Then, in March or April, the district will do a dry run of choice: Parents will fill out applications stating which schools they would want their children to attend were choice starting in fall 2001. The data will be used as the district figures out how to offer bus service during choice.

    The "dry run" might not be especially accurate. Attractor programs won't be developed yet for all schools. In south Pinellas, new schools are planned -- but they're not built and principals won't be named until next year.

    Even at Maximo, Campbell Park and Gulfport, much planning still needs to be done.

    If the grant comes through, all three schools would get new computers, including laptops for teachers, equipment for a television studio and artifacts and hand puppets for foreign language instruction. A video conferencing system would be set up so a single teacher could give simultaneous Spanish lessons to students in up to six elementary schools.

    The grant also would pay for a full-time employee dedicated solely to recruiting a diverse student population for each of the three schools.

    At Campbell Park, huge aquariums would be set up around the school. Teachers would get training at the Pier Aquarium, and a partnership with the University of South Florida would allow college faculty and aspiring teachers to try their hands with elementary pupils.

    Teachers at Gulfport would get training in the Montessori approach, which makes the students their own teachers, able to complete assignments in any order they choose. Students would be free to move around the classroom, rather than be confined to a single desk.

    "It's very much student-directed," said Gulfport principal Sharon Jackson. "It's a calm environment. They teach them to respect their environment, each other's work space."

    Barbara Hires, principal of Maximo Elementary, said the micro-society concept would empower her students to be responsible citizens -- ones who won't run in the halls and will get to class on time or pay penalties with their "Maximo money."

    "We're teaching them real life skills," Hires said. "Kids need to be exposed to that, and starting at the elementary level is not too early."

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