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New assignment plan for pupils calmly assessed

By KELLY RYAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 11, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Ken Welch lobbied for neighborhood schools Thursday, saying parents can be more involved in education if their children attend school close to home.

Welch, who ran unsuccessfully for the School Board in 1998, made another plea: As board members develop a new "choice" school assignment plan, student achievement should get highest priority.

"I would urge you to put as much of a proximity preference as possible to give south county an opportunity to really be involved in their children's education," said Welch, a father. "(But) none of this matters at the end of the day if the children can't read and write."

For the second night in a row, school district officials got questions -- but not jeers -- about a new student assignment plan that will replace court-ordered busing for desegregation.

Fourteen people in a crowd of 80 spoke Thursday at a School Advisory Councils meeting at Dixie Hollins High School.

Teacher Adrien Helm said she was encouraged by the "choice" plan, "particularly the choice it will offer to African-American students around the county."

Since 1971, the Pinellas School District has been under a court order that requires cross-county busing for desegregation.

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.

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, students will select schools and assignments will be made by lottery.

Each zone can have a black student population of no more than 39 percent or less than 7 percent.

The agreement allows the School Board to create areas around schools so that students who live nearby would have a better chance of getting in. No details have been decided.

The mood at Dixie Hollins was much like the Wednesday meeting at Pinellas Park High School. Parents in the mostly white audience seemed well-informed and calmly made suggestions.

Several people wanted assurances that family members will be able to attend the same school. One parent wanted to make sure that once a student is admitted to a particular school, the student won't be shifted around every year.

Jamie Simpson, representing the National People's Democratic Uhuru Movement, circulated a petition saying that any plan that includes quotas should be opposed so black children can go to school in their community.

More meetings

The school district will hold three more community meetings about its new student assignment plan. Each starts at 7 p.m.

TUESDAY: Listening session at John Hopkins Middle School, St. Petersburg

WEDNESDAY: School Advisory Councils session at Lakewood High School, St. Petersburg

THURSDAY: Listening session at school district administration building, Largo

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