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School Search: expanding as Florida’s choices grow

By Thomas C. Tobin
Hailey Ritchey buried herself in a book while her mom spoke with educators from James B. Sanderlin IB World School during a 2012 parent information night in Pinells County. Sanderlin is one of almost 70 special programs offered by Pinellas. [DIRK SHADD | Times]

Twenty-four years ago, with a new special section called School Search, the Times set out to help families stay better informed about their educational options.

Today, School Search enters new territory, expanding for the first time outside Pinellas County to reach parents, guardians and students in Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties. Also new: We are publishing the section earlier this year to better match the rhythms of how people search for schools.

We know. It seems like the 2017-18 school year is just starting. But itís not too soon to begin the process for next year, whether your child will be entering kindergarten or making the jump to middle or high school ó or youíre a family simply looking to make a change, regardless of grade level.

In the next two weeks, local school districts will be holding information nights that allow families to learn more about magnets, academies and other special programs. After that, itís time to attend open houses or "discovery nights" to actually see schools and meet the staffs. Then the application period kicks in, typically in December, January or February. And finally, if your child gains the desired seat, you must formally accept that invitation.

Only then can you exhale and start planning for the fall.

In the early days of School Search, our coverage was geared to a limited number of Pinellas magnet schools. It is striking, nearly a quarter century later, to step back and see how much the landscape has changed.

Decades of effort to desegregate schools would fall by the wayside, changing the way students are assigned to schools. Over two terms, Gov. Jeb Bush would transform education with heightened accountability and an emphasis on more choices for families, including charter schools. The theory was that a robust array of alternatives to the traditional public school system would create competition and prod that system to improve.

It has taken years for this idea to fully flower, as opponents contend the public school system needs more resources, not competition. But no matter how you feel about these policies, it is hard to ignore the steady rise of charter schools in Florida and the increasing popularity of state scholarship programs that allow low-income and disabled students to pay for private school.

Public schools have responded by upping the number of their choices considerably. All around the Tampa Bay region, we see a proliferation of special programs ó International Baccalaureate, Cambridge, science, technology and the arts, plus career academies of every stripe, from digital media and culinary arts to drafting, construction and health care.

An expanded School Search is a recognition of these ever-broadening options. We offer the information as a starting point for families, a foundation for the legwork you will do in the coming weeks.

In addition to touring schools, we encourage students to shadow the programs that interest them. Talking with other parents is strongly recommended, as is checking the available data.

The Florida Department of Education website ( is a good place to begin. Start your research under the tab labeled "accountability."

We wish you luck on your search. Let us know how we can help.

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at [email protected] Follow @ThomasCTobin.