Her mission: a clear choice
By KELLY RYAN
© St. Petersburg Times,
LARGO -- Andrea Zahn isn't worried about the people who took the time to fill out 55,000 surveys about the Pinellas school district's "choice plan." It's the 50,000 surveys that weren't returned that weigh on her mind.
Zahn is the new marketing coordinator for choice, which will replace neighborhood zoning with a system that gives parents a greater voice in choosing their children's schools. Since the School Board started talking about choice several years ago, the concept and the details have confounded people.
It's Zahn's job to unconfuse parents, real estate agents, principals, bus drivers, teachers and kids. She doesn't have much money or much time.
Choice doesn't begin until August 2003, but parents will begin making their school selections just a year from now. Numerous decisions will be made between now and the spring about exactly how the plan will work, including what kind of bus service parents can expect. Schools will have to come up with special programs to attract students and develop pamphlets and other items to advertise their plans.
Through it all, Zahn wants to make it easy for parents to understand how the decisions will affect their families. She pledges to do that by focusing as much on the details as trying to persuade skeptics that choice can and will be good for kids.
"It doesn't worry me. I just know what a big job I have to do," said Zahn, who has worked for Pinellas schools for 11 years, most recently as a community involvement coordinator. "I think there's probably some truth to the fact that you can try everything and there still might be parents who never get the message."
School officials are analyzing surveys that parents turned in last spring. Some results are expected by mid September.
But some parents still will want Zahn to answer the question that has been asked a thousand times: Why choice?
In 1964, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the Pinellas school district, saying it discriminated against African-Americans. In 1971, a court order resulting from that lawsuit required schools to adhere to strict race ratios. Because of that, black students were bused long distances to schools in predominantly white neighborhoods.
In recent years, lawyers for the Legal Defense Fund and the school district negotiated a settlement to end the lawsuit and the court order. That settlement, approved last summer by a federal judge, called for a new system of student assignment: choice.
In choice, the district will be divided into attendance areas. Parents will apply for their top choices, and a computer will process the applications.
To make good decisions, parents have to understand their attendance area, what options are available and whether their family qualifies for any special preferences. For example, students who live close to a particular school will have a better chance at attending that school. "It just can't happen overnight," Zahn said. "It does take time for people to get comfortable."
That's where Zahn comes in.
She will spend the fall developing a marketing plan for choice that will include putting information in coupon packets, grocery bags, libraries and community centers.
She is planning radio and television spots and visits to pediatricians' offices, the health department and licensed preschools.
She wants the religious community to help. She hopes to get approval from Florida Power, Verizon and other utilities to put application reminders in residents' bills.
"If you have a phone, you're getting a bill. If you're running electricity, you're getting a power bill," Zahn said. "I need to go to where people are."
The confusion is not limited to the public. District employees don't know how to answer parents' questions, either.
Later this month, Zahn will distribute a newsletter to all full-time district employees. She will prepare information for school newsletters and hand out a video to be shown on back-to-school nights.
Superintendent Howard Hinesley agreed that all those avenues must be explored, though he knows some utilities have refused to cooperate in the past.
These efforts sound expensive, but Zahn and Hinesley say her budget will be limited. Neither could say how limited, but Hinesley said the money will come from a grant.
No matter what is done, Hinesley said, no marketing approach is foolproof. He and others visited several districts that use choice, and all said that some families just skip the application process.
"We've always been concerned about it because everywhere we've ever been we've been told that's been a problem," Hinesley said. "We'll do everything we can."
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