TAMPA — Families interested in school choice in Hillsborough County, especially those with high school-aged children, should get comfortable with uncertainty this year.
School officials don't yet know how choice options will be affected by the overhaul of attendance boundaries for nine large high schools in the northwest and eastern county.
Though the boundaries may not be settled until February, the district kicked off the first period for choice applications last week, a window that closes at the end of the month. The next application period starts in mid April.
So what's a family to do?
Option one: Memorize the phone number and Web address for the district's choice program. Check back often.
Option two: Just go ahead and apply for choice at schools that could see classroom seats open up after boundaries changes — even those that are currently crowded and closed to choice.
"If there's any doubt, apply and we'll hold your application," said Bill Person, Hillsborough's general director of student placement.
He said the district will process at a later date the early applications along with those that come in after the boundaries are set. Hillsborough may even create a special choice application period this year, before the April window, specifically for high schools.
"It's a definite possibility," Person said. "Our intent is to provide services and placement, not to make everybody wait."
For now, thousands of families could be in a wait-and-see mode. Last year, the district received 5,500 applications just for school choice, not including applications to magnet programs offering specialized curriculum.
Families also can apply for choice hardship, previously called special assignment, to get into crowded schools closed to traditional choice. School officials have cracked down on these placements in recent years and say they expect families to demonstrate a real need.
But popular high schools long capped to choice could soon see some breathing room from the boundary changes. On Aug. 24, Steinbrenner High opens in Lutz, and Strawberry Crest High in the Dover area. To fill them, the district is reviewing boundaries at seven nearby schools.
These include Gaither, Alonso, Sickles and Freedom high schools in the northern county and Durant, Plant City and Armwood in the east. Some or all could have openings for choice in the future.
But only Freedom and Armwood are currently open for school choice, according to the district Web site, which does not identify the new schools as options.
Person said Steinbrenner and Strawberry Crest are likely to have some room for choice.
Plus, school officials have not yet decided whether to add yet another boundary change to the list — Chamberlain High in the north Tampa area. What happens at this severely crowded school could affect choice options elsewhere.
And the district also is opening two elementary schools in the Lithia and Dover areas. A new middle school also is slated to open in Lithia, triggering yet another set of boundary changes.
In another change to the choice program, the district will accept applications from kindergarten students to the popular International Baccalaureate programs at MacFarlane Park and Lincoln elementary schools. Other magnet programs are open to students in first through 11th grades.
Letitia Stein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3400. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.