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    Parental survey will shape plan

    Data gathered this month will help officials iron out details of a plan to let parents choose their children's schools in 2003-04.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 16, 2001


    The decision about choice has been made. Now, it's time to figure out how it will work.

    This month, every Pinellas school will hold an information session about the district's plan to let parents choose their children's schools beginning in 2003-04. At the end of April, parents will be mailed a survey asking which school they would choose for their children if choice were to begin this fall.

    The survey will give School Board members insight about the kinds of choices parents will make: Will parents pick schools close to home? What kinds of special programs will interest them? Do they care about a school's reputation or cleanliness? Does a school's size matter?

    School Board members will analyze results of the survey (and a related focus group) this summer. The results will include numbers that will interest parents who have been skeptical about choice, such as how many parents will get their first or second choices.

    Eventually, the results will help the board decide what kind of transportation service to provide and whether the school application process must be streamlined. Schools can use the information to figure out whether special programs they plan to offer -- such as arts, foreign language or Montessori -- really would be popular.

    "It's going to give us a lot of data," said Superintendent Howard Hinesley. "Of course, the challenge is going to be to get as many back as we can."

    Last summer, the School Board and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund agreed to settle a 30-year-old federal lawsuit that led to race ratios in schools and cross-county busing to meet those ratios. As part of the agreement, the School Board decided to implement "controlled choice" as a transition from mostly neighborhood zoning.

    Beginning in 2003, the district will be divided into attendance areas, students will apply to attend schools in their area and a computer will process the applications. Choice is "controlled" because ratios will continue until 2007-08.

    The focus group of 50 families will convene this month to practice filling out applications in a family information center at PTEC in St. Petersburg. Before choice starts, several more centers will open so parents have a place to go to figure out their options.

    Between April 23 and May 8, schools will hold parent meetings about choice and how to fill out the survey. The survey will be mailed April 30 to 110,000 parents who have children in kindergarten through 11th grade. Parents will be asked to return their prestamped surveys by mid May. The district will send postcards and set up phone banks to contact families who don't return the surveys.

    The survey, including printing and postage, will cost the district about $150,000.

    As part of choice, every school has been asked to figure out how to attract students. For some, that will simply mean marketing programs already in place. But some schools will have to develop innovative programs, such as Campbell Park Elementary, which is working with the University of South Florida to teach marine science.

    The survey includes descriptions of every school's selling point -- and that has upset the community group charged with watching the district's desegregation efforts, the District Monitoring and Advisory Committee (DMAC).

    As part of the settlement, the school district is building two new elementary schools and one new middle school south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. Those new schools are supposed to give African-American children, who have borne the brunt of forced busing, a better chance of attending school close to home once choice starts.

    Those new schools aren't built, and they don't have principals, teachers, parents or students.

    But the district has selected what officials call potential programs for those schools to see how parents respond on the survey. The middle school is being floated as a fundamental school. One elementary would offer engineering, and the other would be a preinternational baccalaureate program with no entrance requirements.

    Some DMAC members -- and attorneys for the Legal Defense Fund -- think they should have been part of discussions as proposals were developed for the three new, so-far-unnamed schools. Perhaps more important, they also think the community should be surveyed before any ideas are floated for those schools.

    "They finally build a middle school in their (African-American) community and they say they have to go to a fundamental school," said Marsha Carter, an NAACP member and former DMAC chairwoman. "It's going to be a real tough sell. We're going to have a lot of very angry parents."

    Hinesley said DMAC will get the results of the survey and then have a chance to make recommendations to the School Board. The superintendent said he didn't think to involve DMAC; by the time he said he found out the group wanted to participate in the decision, he said some of the mailings had been sent to the printer.

    "They are a very important adviser, and they'll have an opportunity to advise the School Board once we get all the feedback," Hinesley said.

    But DMAC members are not satisfied. Some feel like they are being ignored and that the district's unwillingness to listen to them about the details of choice bodes poorly for the future.

    "This is a turning point for us," said Pat Scarberry, DMAC chairwoman. "We will either stand up and be noticed or we will meekly work around the fringes and not offend anyone."

    A DMAC representative will attend Tuesday's School Board meeting to voice concerns and invite Hinesley and board members to a meeting.

    The NAACP St. Petersburg branch is holding a forum at 7 p.m. today to find out from parents what kind of programs they would like to see in the new schools. The meeting at the NAACP office, 1501 16th St. S, is open to the public. An NAACP member will present the forum's results to the School Board.

    School Board member Linda Lerner, who attended last month's DMAC meeting, also has raised concerns about the process. If the district floats particular programs for schools, parents likely will think they're done deals -- and some DMAC members agree that perception is already out there.

    "You can call it a simulation, but that train is already on the track," Lerner told DMAC members. "I think the board really needs to hear from you directly."

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