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Student assignment plan draws questions, not jeers

At a Pinellas Park meeting on the plan, speakers are not so adamant about neighborhood schools as at other hearings.

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 10, 2000


PINELLAS PARK -- For once, the new student assignment plan for Pinellas schools was not outright booed.

Superintendent Howard Hinesley met Wednesday with School Advisory Councils at Pinellas Park High School to solicit feedback on the new assignment plan that will replace court-ordered busing.

But unlike recent meetings in north Pinellas schools, parents didn't demand neighborhood schools.

Of the 90 parents in the audience, most said they knew a "choice plan" was being proposed and sounded willing to work with the school district.

Most of the questions and comments focused on money. Parents wanted to know whether money will be available for underchosen schools, for schools to develop innovative curriculums or for more buses, if those are needed.

"Will there be funds for the School Board to support special programs?" asked parent Becky Evans.

Since 1971, the Pinellas School District has been under a court order that requires cross-county busing for desegregation. Black students have borne the brunt of the busing, some riding 14 miles from home.

In December, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the School Board reached a settlement to end the 1964 lawsuit that led to the court supervision. The settlement, which still must be approved by a federal judge, outlines a new student assignment plan to keep schools integrated.

Between 2003 and 2007, students will not be assigned to schools based solely on their home address. The county will be divided into four or fewer areas, and students will select schools and assignments will be made through a lottery.

Each of the zones can have a black student population of no more than 39 percent or less than 7 percent. Black student enrollment at each school would be capped, though the limit would rise from 37 percent to 42 percent.

School officials have not worked out the details of the new plan. For instance, the settlement allows the School Board to create "proximity zones" around schools so that students who live near a school will have a better chance of getting in. Board members have not decided how to define proximity.

At meetings at Countryside High School and Palm Harbor University High School, parents told the district to draw ample proximity zones so children can be guaranteed admission to neighborhood schools. Many parents at those meetings have never been affected by the court order and have been able to send their children to neighborhood schools.

At Pinellas Park High, none of the five speakers provided any suggestions for the mechanics of the plan. The speakers were more interested in the specialized programs schools are being encouraged to offer to attract students.

Thousands of students from middle and south Pinellas are bused every year to achieve desegregation. Because of that, Hinesley said, parents at the Pinellas Park meeting were more likely aware of the court order and more open to a new assignment plan.

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