ST. PETERSBURG — Even before she enrolled her daughter in Jamerson Elementary, Tammy Kaplan was charting a path to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School.
"When we took a seat in the school, we were told we feed into Thurgood Marshall," said Kaplan, who has a 6-year-old daughter in the first grade. "We didn't just pick this school because they gave it to us. We chose this school."
It has been an unwritten practice for several years to give Jamerson students first dibs at Thurgood Marshall, along with fundamental students. But at a workshop last Monday, a majority of the Pinellas County School Board unexpectedly directed school officials to end the practice for the two St. Petersburg schools.
Parents said they were blindsided by the move. "If you're told this is where you're being tracked, and then they take that away, that's unfair," Kaplan said.
By Friday, new board members Terry Krassner and Lew Williams said they favored postponing the decision.
"I want families to have more of a heads up," Krassner said. "And if it's something that's working well, I wouldn't want to destroy any of that. I know we need more time to investigate."
Williams said he's gathering more information about the issue and that his position could change based on what he finds. But based on what he knows now, he said, he supports a delay.
"I want them to hold off until we hear those parents out," he said. "What was that promise? And how can we take it out without going back (on the promise)?"
School officials say the unofficial arrangement at Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary began about three years ago. At the time, Thurgood Marshall was only an area magnet school, but now it draws gifted magnet students from the southern third of the county and fundamental students from throughout the county.
The middle school enrolls roughly 325 to 350 sixth-graders a year, about 30 to 35 from Jamerson. Many of its fundamental seats are filled by fundamental elementary students, some of whom are admitted to its gifted magnet program. However, deputy superintendent Jim Madden said as the gifted magnet program grows, available fundamental slots to students outside the official fundamental school feeder programs could be reduced. This is likely as more elementary school fundamental seats are added across the district, he said.
Parents contend Thurgood Marshall is a logical track for students from Jamerson, which has a math and engineering focus. Although Thurgood Marshall has no official engineering program, its principal says there is a strong enough link between the elementary and middle school programs, Madden said.
But "when I talk to the curriculum people, they are not as convinced,'' he said.
Parent Brian C. Melton noted the district responded to the need for emphasis on the STEM disciplines (science, technology, engineering and math) by creating the math and engineering program for students at Jamerson.
"It would truly be tragic to take away this learning path from them by not assuring them a place at Thurgood Marshall for middle school and waste the education they have received to this point,'' he wrote in a letter to the district. In it, he pleaded not only for his fifth-grade daughter, but for her classmates and those who follow.
Kaplan said parents also were told that Jamerson's status as a de facto feeder for Thurgood would become official and part of the district's written student assignment policy.
"This has been an issue in the past, but Jim Madden reassured us that it wasn't going to be an issue this year," she said.
Madden said he told parents "it would appear in the programs book the next time it went before the board. We did that in time for the most recent workshop.''
But several board members objected.
"I don't understand why we're making this exception," said member Linda Lerner. "I want that out."
Told by Janssen that Jamerson parents had been promised priority years ago, member Janet Clark said, "It wasn't a promise from the board as far as I know. We're within our rights to say no to this."
On Friday, Krassner and Williams said they were concerned about how the Jamerson decision was made.
Making such a change without talking with stakeholders is not the way the School Board should conduct business, Williams said.
PTA president Laurie Gammill has a son in second grade at Jamerson. "It is my goal as a parent to see that he gets into Thurgood Marshall,'' she said.
Gammill said parents plan to show up at Tuesday's School Board meeting to protest. The board is scheduled to approve changes to student assignment as part of Janssen's student achievement plan.
"We are just passionate parents and when you see these vibrant children that are focused on math and engineering and technology, you have something to look forward to," said Gammill. "Without this feeder program, you say, what now?"
Dana Douglas, a member of the school advisory council whose 11-year-old son is a fifth-grader at Jamerson, agreed.
"We'd have to start our research all over again," she said. "We don't have a place to go. They are not showing us any alternative."
Times staff writer Luis Perez contributed to this report. Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2283. Ron Matus is at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.