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Parents' choice? Focus on math

Schools heavy on numbers, science and technology are tops among parents who responded to a survey on choice.

By KELLY RYAN GILMER

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 2001


Schools heavy on numbers, science and technology are tops among parents who responded to a survey on choice.

LARGO -- Pinellas School Board members knew that most parents would want to send their children to their zoned, neighborhood schools when given a choice.

On Tuesday, they learned that three factors might make parents move to a new school: science, math and engineering.

At a workshop, school district research chief Steve Iachini released data from a survey asking parents what schools they would choose for their children. The data, in an inch-thick pile of paper, was filled with revealing tidbits about what draws families and keeps them happy at a school:

Overwhelmingly, parents want schools to focus on science, math, technology and engineering. That was true for elementary, middle and high school families, among black and white families, and in all corners of Pinellas County.

Fundamental schools were still popular, but not No. 1 on any list. That raises questions about whether the new Thurgood Marshall Middle School in St. Petersburg should be a fundamental school, as originally proposed, or a science program. Or both, as board member Max Gessner suggested.

The most important factor in choosing a school is a safe learning environment, parents said. Also key were the cleanliness of the school and effectiveness of the teaching staff. Much lower on the list were test scores and convenience.

A high percentage of parents said they would choose their currently zoned school -- but those numbers increase dramatically as you travel from southern Pinellas County toward Tarpon Springs.

In the southernmost elementary school area, for example, 33.9 percent of black families would attend their zoned school, compared with 53.4 percent of non-black parents. In the far north part of Pinellas, 48.2 percent of black elementary families would stay in their zoned school, compared with 80.1 percent of white families.

Based on the schools that parents selected most often, it appears that the district will continue to have trouble maintaining race ratios at some St. Petersburg schools. Also, the new Marshall Middle School, in a predominantly African-American neighborhood, was fairly popular with black families. It was not with non-black families.

While ratios are in place, the school district will have to assign students to schools to comply with a federal court agreement. District officials say they want to keep Pinellas schools integrated even after ratios end in 2007.

Because the school district will be required through 2007 to limit black student enrollment at schools, when officials analyzed the survey data, they found that black students would not get their top choices as often as non-black students. That difference was most noticeable at the elementary school level.

The survey has its limitations.

Despite repeated efforts by the school district to get more families to fill out the survey, only about 52,000 did. The district sent out 106,036. For the analysis, families that did not return the survey were assigned to their current schools.

Whatever its limitations, though, the survey data will be used the next few months to shape the details of a new student assignment plan.

In 2003, the school district will end its practice of assigning students to schools based primarily on their home address. Instead, the county will be divided into attendance areas, students will apply to attend their top few choices in their area and a computer will process the selections.

But families have an out. All students who were enrolled in Pinellas schools on the last day of school in 2000-01 and don't move to a new house will be able to skip choice and continue attending their zoned elementary, middle and high schools.

The survey data will be given to a committee that monitors the school district's desegregation efforts so the group can recommend what kinds of special programs should be placed in three new St. Petersburg schools.

It will be given to principals, who are working with parents and teachers to come up with programs that will attract parents.

"It's important that as schools go about talking about themselves and marketing themselves, parents want to know about this kind of stuff," said Jim Madden, the district's choice plan chief, who was pointing to issues such as school safety and cleanliness. "They need to be able to respond to it."

Transportation director Terry Palmer told board members he will ask for permission next month to send the data to a consultant to study the most efficient way to provide bus service when choice starts. The study will cost about $170,000, which alarmed several board members who are reeling from budget cuts.

Board members also gave Palmer the go-ahead to continue with plans to expand bus compounds on 49th Street and near Lealman Intermediate School. The district does not yet have a price tag for what those plans will cost, but said it is necessary because choice will require more buses.

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