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Choice of schools may be broad

If the School Board and a federal judge approve the plan, parents could pick from at least a dozen schools.

By SARAH SCHWEITZER

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 24, 2000


TAMPA -- School district officials on Tuesday fleshed out their vision for a school choice plan they hope will end federal court supervision of desegregation in Hillsborough County.

In a 300-page packet, officials detailed multiple school options that would be available to parents who choose not to send their child to his assigned school.

In most cases, parents could select from more than a dozen schools, some suburban and some urban, some near their home and others far away.

School officials also specified more than two dozen schools that would be outfitted with enticements, like magnet programs, aimed at luring kids from diverse backgrounds to racially imbalanced schools.

With School Board and federal court approval, the plan could take effect as soon as August 2001.

The new information added heft to a skeletal plan etched out by district officials two months ago, but it left some key questions unanswered.

Would a school chosen by parents have space for their child? Under the plan, district officials may veto a parent's choice if there is not enough space But capacity levels are expected to change dramatically when the plan is put into place and thus are unknown.

What kind of magnet and other programs would be placed in racially imbalanced schools? District officials say they want to tailor the programs to the wishes of parents and are conducting a survey.

Will busing be provided if parents choose a school other than their child's assigned school? District officials said they have not had time to figure out new bus routes and expect to have that information by next week.

The more detailed, if incomplete, contours of the school choice plan are a response to Judge Elizabeth Kovachevich's 1998 order mandating that the school district do more to desegregate its schools.

District officials, who maintain the system has faithfully made efforts to eliminate all traces of segregation from the school system, appealed the decision to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta in January. No decision has been issued.

The school choice plan "empowers parents," said Bill Person, one of the architects of the desegregation plan. "It lets them make choices. We know that parents have other choices, like private schools and charter schools. We want them to stay with us."

Under the plan, school choice would work like this:

The district would be divided into seven zones and seven regions. Zones would be composed of urban areas; regions would be suburban areas. Each zone would be paired with a region.

Parents living in a region could send their children to their assigned school. Boundaries at assigned schools would remain the same.

But parents could also choose to send their children to any school in either their region or the zone paired with their region. The reverse would hold for parents living in a zone.

For example, parents of a child assigned to Hunter's Green Elementary could send their child to Hunter's Green. But they also could choose 10 other elementary schools in Region 2, a sprawling area in North Tampa, and four other elementary schools in Zone 2, a compact area near the University of South Florida.

The only limitation would be capacity. School district officials are betting that some parents in North Tampa will be willing to shuttle their children to an urban setting to take advantage of new programs at schools like Mort Elementary and Cahoon Elementary. Likewise, school officials hope parents in the zones will opt to take advantage of new programs in North Tampa.

School officials hope this crossover will bring racial balance, though some education experts are skeptical.

The plan likely will have the greatest impact on students who no longer will be bused to schools for desegregation purposes and who have no assigned neighborhood school. These students, many of whom are African-American, will have no choice but to pick a school.

Because many of these students are expected to want to go to school near home, classroom space in their urban neighborhoods will be at a premium. To accommodate the expected need, two alternative schools and some middle schools will be transformed into elementary schools.

In addition, more space will be opened up for African-American students at magnet schools. Currently, African-Americans make up 24 percent of magnet school student bodies; under the plan they would make up 27 percent. Students living in zones would also be given priority acceptance at magnet schools.

The plan must pass several hurdles before it can take effect. The School Board, which is scheduled to vote on the matter June 20, must approve it and Judge Kovachevich must give it her blessing. If her approval comes before December 2000, district officials say the plan could take effect as early as August 2001.

A public hearing is scheduled for June 13 at the district office.

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