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    Overhauling Pinellas schools may risk too much

    By ROB MCMAHON and JADE MOORE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published October 8, 2000


    In the next few weeks, the Pinellas School Board will be making decisions that could affect our schoolchildren as profoundly as the decisions made in the 19th century to segregate our schools and in the 20th century to integrate them. With the elimination of the federal court desegregation order, the debate now centers on how we fashion our schools for the 21st century. But one key consideration seems to be missing.

    What we do now is pretty darned successful.

    Before we make any major change, we need agreement on the goal of our system of schools. One superintendent of a California system described hers as, "Every student who's able will, 18 months after graduation, be enrolled in and successful in higher education, either college or technical school." That's also what our mission, from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary, is all about -- helping our children prepare for a bright future.

    Teachers, parents and the community want the same thing -- a high-quality education for our children in a safe learning environment. Naturally, parents would like that high-quality education close to home. In our current student-assignment system, we offer choices in the way of special programs, magnets and fundamental schools that are designed to accentuate the "quality education" desire so that it overcomes the proximity desire.

    The kind of countywide choice system the School Board is considering, though, is something much more. Like charter schools and vouchers for private schools, choice is an attempt to find a "magic bullet" that will miraculously cure the education ills visited upon some of our children by society. Its theory is that giving parents choices will increase their acceptance of the schools and force unchosen schools to improve. It also is built on the assumption that each school can devise a special "attractor" theme to draw students. But research shows that the organization of a school is not a significant factor in student achievement.

    For example, when our district compared the academic progress of students in fundamental schools with similar students in zoned schools, there was no difference. If you took the students from Dixie Hollins High, which was rated D by the state, and swapped them with the students at Palm Harbor University High, which was rated A, the grades of the schools would likely reverse. This isn't to suggest that the students at Dixie aren't decent, hard-working students. It's just that the FCAT exam doesn't measure decency or hard work. It measures the ability of 10th-graders to take standardized tests, and students in magnets like the two at Palm Harbor were accepted in part on their ability to take standardized tests. Creating attractors to replace zoned schools will not improve student performance.

    In the end, our current system represents a delicate balance that has had the desired result of allowing Pinellas to have a reasonably efficient system of desegregated schools.

    The choice plan the board is currently considering has the potential of ruining that balance. Here are a few reasons that come to mind:

    The person who doesn't get his or her first choice hasn't had a choice. Let's assume that most parents will opt for the high-quality neighborhood school. What happens when it is full? What effect does having to take second or third choice have on parent and student attitudes? What about the folks who move to a neighborhood in the summer only to find that the local school and others nearby are already full? What about the parents whose lives are so focused on just getting by that the whole choice thing is a mystery? Won't they be left with whatever school is not chosen? And what will the schools that get these kids look like?

    Once you choose, there's no going back. Under the choice plan, the assignment is reasonably permanent. This is a significant change from the current practice with choice and magnet schools, where students who don't fare well in the special setting can "default" to their neighborhood or zoned school. Under choice, you can re-enter the lottery in subsequent years, but you're locked into your choice for at least that year. What attitude will those students and parents have?

    Choice now has to confront school grading. When the board voted to seek unitary status, there was no state grading of schools. Now you have the possible consequence of creating schools of "last resort," populated by kids whose parents didn't know any better or who are forced there because all the other choices were taken. What would you guess their grade might be?

    Those who currently have choices may choose to opt out. Informed, involved parents will figure out the system and, if they don't like the assignment their children receive, will jump to the private schools to "wait out" an opening in the desired school. The less advantaged will take what is given them.

    One of the details of choice that has received little attention is the inflexible capacity limits that are established for each school. Combined with the small proximity preference allotted to neighborhood surrounding the schools, the capacity limits could have the effect of forcing many parents to choose a school other than the one they desire.

    The reason is that there is a natural ebb and flow of student enrollment in various school communities. It is caused by changes in neighborhood characteristics (i.e., gentrification) and birth rates (the baby boom). Schools will fluctuate by hundreds of students over time as a result of these factors. Currently, the school system tends to use temporary classrooms or new classroom buildings to handle the growth. Under the fixed capacity aspect of choice, these students will be moved to other schools farther from home.

    An unintended consequence of this movement will be a complete breakdown in the cohesion of feeder schools and receiver schools. With the exception of the students who already choose, there has always been a positive relationship from elementary to middle to high school. Our word for it is "articulation." It means that the elementary understands the needs of the middle school and the middle school the high school. Counselors visit with rising students in the spring to map their plan for the transition year. Under choice, this will become difficult, if not impossible.

    We are now left to wonder: What situation was so bad that it requires a fundamental restructuring of the way we assign children? How many schools are out of compliance? How long will it take for natural housing patterns to provide a diverse population countywide? Does it make any sense to hurt half a generation of students when the court order will expire in six years anyway?

    How ironic it would be if the plan to voluntarily end the court order resulted in more expense, longer bus rides, more dissatisfied parents and greater segregation.

    The late W. Edwards Deming, the genius behind the Total Quality movement, warned of a particularly insidious practice known as, "tampering with a system." The result of tampering is to throw the entire system into turmoil, causing it to lose a definable identity and capability. Reacting to a piece of the system that is out of alignment compromises the integrity of the entire system. It is akin to changing the composition of the choir because two of the altos sing out of tune.

    Pinellas County schools are considered to be among the best in Florida. Why not leave the majority of them alone and focus our resources on the small number of schools that need special attention? One can certainly argue that it would be better to prepare attractors in our new St. Petersburg elementary schools than to throw the entire system into chaos.

    We doubt neither the sincerity nor the commitment of those who have labored on this project. However, surely the goal of providing high quality schools with diverse student populations can be achieved by methods far less confusing, far less expensive and far less harmful. This particular choice, we believe, is too risky an experiment.

    - Rob McMahon is president of the Pinellas Classroom Teachers Association. Jade Moore is executive director.

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