Planning to apply for a Pinellas school ‘choice’ program? The time has come

Sixth-grade students use their laptops and tablets during a science class at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg. The school's Center for Innovation and Digital Learning is one of about 70 choice programs offered by the Pinellas County school system. The choice application period for the 2018-19 school year runs from Jan. 10-19. [SCOTT KEELER    |  TIMES]
Sixth-grade students use their laptops and tablets during a science class at Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg. The school's Center for Innovation and Digital Learning is one of about 70 choice programs offered by the Pinellas County school system. The choice application period for the 2018-19 school year runs from Jan. 10-19. [SCOTT KEELER | TIMES]
Published January 5 2018
Updated January 5 2018

If history is any guide, more than 20,000 applications from some 11,000 students will flow into the Pinellas County school systemís computers over the next two weeks as families seek access to choice programs.

Those numbers have been fairly consistent in recent years, part of a winter application cycle that has become a familiar annual ritual. Families looking for options outside of their regular zoned school will be vying for entry into special programs like magnets, fundamental schools and career academies.

Pinellas offers about 70 of them, with themes that include technology and the arts, gifted education and health care, law enforcement, construction trades and more.

SCHOOL SEARCH 2018: A guide to school choice programs in the Tampa Bay area

Applications must be submitted online through the districtís Student Reservation System, and the first day to do that is Wednesday. The last day is Jan. 19.

After that comes a computer lottery conducted internally by the district, followed by an "acceptance period" in February, when parents and guardians must check back with the reservation system to see if their students have been invited into any programs.

RELATED: How to navigate the Pinellas school choice lottery

Not everyone gets into a program but a large majority do. This time last year, 11,072 students applied, and the lottery system responded with 10,682 invitations. Some applicants were luckier than most, getting invitations to more than one program.

The process can be complicated, especially for families who are new to it. So the district is offering three "application assistance sessions" in the coming days to help parents navigate.

In the fall, the district held a series of open houses called "Discovery Nights," where families could visit programs and ask questions. But for those who missed out, some programs are still offering tours and opportunities to shadow students for a day.

The number of programs has grown in recent years as Pinellas, like other districts, works to keep up in an age when lawmakers are holding fast to the philosophy that the public school system works best when prodded by outside competition. That thinking has spawned an ever-expanding number of charter schools and state-sponsored "scholarship" programs that allow lower-income and disabled students to attend private schools.

For families who strike out during the January-February choice cycle in Pinellas, the district holds a late application period that lasts until the end of the calendar year, offering spots in programs that still have unfilled seats.

While those seats tend to be in less popular programs, many families find this option helpful.

Meanwhile, choice programs arenít the only ones gearing up for next school year.

The district also is reaching out this month to families who plan to send their kindergarten students to their zoned school in 2018-19.

Kindergarten registration begins Wednesday. Children must be 5 years old before Sept. 1, 2018.

To help families prepare, the district is holding its annual "Ready, Set ... Kindergarten" program, allowing parents and future students to explore classrooms, meet teachers and find out about features in the districtís regular zoned schools.

The events are scheduled next week at dozens of Pinellas elementary schools. For a schedule, visit pcsb.org/kg.

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Key dates

Jan. 10: First day to apply for a choice program. Parents must use the Student Reservation System at reservation.pcsb.org. After entering their User ID and password, obtained at any school, they can select up to five programs in order of preference.

Jan. 19: Last day to apply.

Feb. 14-21: Period when families can accept invitations to programs for which they have applied. During this period, families can change their mind and select a different program, as long as they do it before the Feb. 21 deadline. Failure to accept an invitation will render a studentís application invalid.

Getting help

District officials will help parents with applications during three evening sessions:

Jan. 11, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Sandy Lane Elementary, 1360 Sandy Lane, Clearwater

Jan. 17, 5:30-7:30 p.m., Gibbs High, 850 34th St. S, St. Petersburg

Jan. 18, 4:30-7:30 p.m., District Student Assignment Office, 301 Fourth St. SW, Largo

For more information, visit pcsb.org/choice or call the districtís Student Assignment office at (727) 588-6210.

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

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