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Few go the distance

Of the 110 Walsingham Elementary students zoned for Campbell Park Elementary, only 24 actually make it during the last round of court-ordered busing.

By MAUREEN BYRNE

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 29, 2001


SEMINOLE -- Her son's school is a 45-minute bus ride from home, and that's a fact Catherine Geis still doesn't like. But she is content with Campbell Park Elementary itself now.

As part of the last student rotation of busing for desegregation, Mrs. Geis' third-grade son, Benjamin, is one of 110 Pinellas County students who were told last spring they would be transferred from Walsingham Elementary School in Seminole to Campbell Park. He is in the small fraction that actually ended up going there.

Campbell Park is in a modest African-American neighborhood next to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. In her own neighborhood, talk circulated of high crime there.

"My husband and I went down to Campbell Park in the spring and toured the school," she said. "We looked at the neighborhood and the park and the houses and made the decision that it wasn't as bad as people were saying. What concerned us was the bus ride."

African-American children bear the brunt of busing, but every two years since 1971 the School Board has selected a new group of white students to bus to predominantly black neighborhoods. The district, which has settled the federal lawsuit that led to ratios, was required to implement one final rotation before "controlled choice" starts in the fall of 2003.

Many of the Walsingham students' parents, including Mrs. Geis, protested at School Board meetings when they were told last spring about the rotation. The parents wrote letters to the school district and to Gov. Jeb Bush.

One of their concerns was that Campbell Park, at 1107 Seventh Ave. S, is being rebuilt, and the whole school is moving in a year to a temporary location for one year. That means the students would move twice in two years. They said they also worry about the crime rate around the school.

But Superintendent Howard Hinesley and Marlene Mueller, former director of pupil assignment, said they could not change their recommendation. The district had to comply with a federal court order to keep race ratios in check until 2003, when the district will let parents have more say in choosing their children's schools.

The Walsingham parents said they would enroll their kids in a private school or teach them at home rather than send them to Campbell Park.

And that's what most of them did.

Less than one-quarter of the Walsingham students who were zoned for Campbell Park are attending the school. Of the 110 pupils, 24 are enrolled at the school, said principal James Steen. Sixteen students were given special attendance permits to remain at Walsingham. The other 70 students either moved, enrolled at a private school or opted for home-schooling.

Maria Kinzer is sending her 7-year-old daughter, Jessica, to the private Community Christian School in Largo. Like Mrs. Geis, she also feels the school is too far.

"It was definitely the distance," she said. "I don't think any kids should be bused that far from their homes."

Mrs. Kinzer, 38, said she was planning to put her daughter in a private school when she started middle school. "They just made my decision a little earlier for me," she said.

The coalition of parents who waged the organized battle against the school district this year fell apart after the rotation was unanimously approved by the School Board, Mrs. Geis said.

"Everyone pretty much went on their own either looking at private schools or home-schooling," she said.

In 2003, Benjamin, 8, and other students from his neighborhood who are attending Campbell Park will have the option of staying at Campbell Park, returning to Walsingham or listing a school of their choice in a designated area of the county, said James Underhill, a planning specialist in the district's pupil assignment department. The former Walsingham students who chose not to attend Campbell Park but will re-enter the public school system in 2003 will be given only the school choice option.

Mrs. Geis said while she and her son waited for the school bus one morning last week, a man drove by the stop and snidely yelled out his car window that it would be a long wait for the bus. She was surprised by the remark, she said, and thinks it may have come from a parent who isn't happy that some of the neighborhood parents decided to go along with the rotation.

Benjamin catches his bus at 7:45 a.m. He arrives at school around 8:30 a.m. It's another 45-minute ride in the afternoon, with Benjamin arriving home around 3:30 p.m.

"So far he is taking it in stride," said Mrs. Geis, 33.

Campbell Park Elementary is about 15 miles from Walsingham Elementary. Most of the former Walsingham students who were zoned for Campbell Park live in Somerset Lakes, an area of single-family homes just east of Starkey Road and south of Ulmerton Road. The neighborhood is only minutes from Walsingham Elementary at 9099 Walsingham Road.

There really is no quick way to get to Campbell Park from Walsingham. With no easy access to Interstate 275, it's a long drive with plenty of traffic and signal lights.

At Walsingham, Mrs. Geis was an active volunteer. "I just don't see that happening for the next two years because of the rotation," she said.

The stay-at-home mom said she would volunteer to drive on field trips. "But I'm not going to go down there at 7 p.m. in the evening for a 30-minute PTA meeting when it takes 45 minutes to get there," she said.

After the transfer was approved last spring, Campbell Park hosted an open house for the students' parents. Mrs. Geis and her husband, Larry, attended, but they also returned on a Sunday afternoon to visit a park next to the school. Some students play at the park on supervised visits and their parents must sign a permission slip for them to do so.

"There weren't any vagrants hanging around," Mrs. Geis said. "We saw families with picnic baskets and people walking their dogs."

What she was expecting to see because of the negative comments she had heard about the school and neighborhood -- criminal activity such as selling drugs -- was not there. "We didn't see any signs of that," she said.

"I think it's fear of the unknown," principal James Steen said of some of the parents' views of the school. He stresses safety measures at the school and its good relationship with the Campbell Park Neighborhood Association.

Mrs. Kinzer, who works near her daughter's new school in Largo, said she never visited Campbell Park Elementary but that she did speak with Steen. She said her decision to send Jessica to a private school had nothing to do with him or the school. "It's just too far from home," she told him.

Steen says he understands. He says he knows the school is a long way from the Seminole neighborhood. But, he says, those parents who decided against the school because it is in an inner-city neighborhood may have done so for the wrong reasons.

"I'm proud of this school," he said. "It has been real special to me."

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