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    380 rush to sign up for schools

    Why the scurry in the last few days of the school? To be able to opt out of the choice system of school assignment.

    By KELLY RYAN

    © St. Petersburg Times,
    published June 7, 2001


    The last three days of school are a time for final lessons, final exams and final class parties.

    But this year, it also was a time for a final rush to enroll in Pinellas schools.

    District officials say about 380 new students -- new to the county or from Pinellas' private and home schools -- registered in the days and minutes before the 2000-2001 school year ended Wednesday. Most of the new students are elementary-age, and many were seeking coveted spots in elementary or middle schools that feed into Palm Harbor University or Seminole high schools.

    Another 550 students who already attended Pinellas schools gave back their special attendance permits and returned to their zoned schools.

    "Right now, it's just very hectic," said Bauder Elementary principal Janet Johnston, whose school got 88 new students, more than any other. Of those, 21 registered as fifth-graders who wanted the right to go to Seminole Middle without attending Bauder.

    Blame -- or thank, depending on your perspective -- the "choice plan" that the School Board approved in October.

    Starting in 2003, Pinellas will end traditional neighborhood zoning and have parents rank their choices of schools they would like their children to attend. A computer will process the application.

    Some parents, most from north Pinellas, complained that they bought houses in certain neighborhoods so their children would be assured spots on stable school tracks. So, Superintendent Howard Hinesley and board members gave some families an out.

    Any student enrolled in his zoned school by the end of Wednesday, the last day of school, will be able to opt out of the choice system and continue on his current zoned school track. To continue to be eligible for the privilege called "extended grandfathering," a family must stay at the same address until the end of a child's secondary education.

    But not all the "new" students are new to the district. Under the grandfathering rules, a student had to register in his zoned school to be able to continue on the zoned track. So, 527 elementary students gave up special attendance permits to return to their zoned school. At the middle school level, 24 students gave up special attendance permits.

    With numbers in from all but nine elementaries, 104 new students are from other counties, 188 are from private schools and 16 are from middles. With numbers from all but seven middle schools, 15 new students are from other counties, 54 are from private schools and three are from home schools.

    "I want to say they want to come to Ozona Elementary School," said principal MaryAnn Sanchez, whose Palm Harbor campus got five students from private school, four from out-of-county and 17 who have been in other Pinellas elementaries on special attendance permits. "But discussions with the parents has clearly indicated that they desire to be in Palm Harbor University High School."

    At Palm Harbor Elementary School, principal Bob McFadden gained 35 students, but lost 10 who had been at his school on special permits. During the last hour of the last day of school, several parents were still in the front office, filling out paperwork.

    One out-of-town family flew in Sunday, left a first-grader with grandparents who live locally and flew out Sunday night. Monday morning, the grandparent registered the first-grader, whose family has bought a house in Palm Harbor but isn't there yet.

    "My data prep clerk was extremely overworked," McFadden said. "I took away all other duties from her."

    Anticipating that some schools could get inundated with new students who might disrupt end-of-the year activities, the district decided that any student who registered the last week did not have to actually set foot in a classroom. But the child did have to show up with the adults filling out registration forms.

    School district budget director Doug Forth watched this phenomenon with interest. Pinellas only projected that 395 new students would enroll next year, so having nearly 400 just from grandfathering wouldn't seem to cause a financial catastrophe.

    "It's always worrisome when you have to educate more children than you have funding for," Forth said. "But we do have a small amount of money set aside . . . so we could handle a small number of surprise children."

    Popular schools

    Some schools got slammed with new students who want to take advantage of a privilege under the new "choice plan." As of 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, here are some of the most popular schools:

    Bauder Elementary School -- 88

    Forest Lakes Elementary -- 38

    McMullen-Booth Elementary -- 30

    Garrison-Jones Elementary -- 25

    Oldsmar Elementary -- 23

    -- Source: Pinellas schools

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