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'Close to home' zones for schools? Not so much

Joanna Milinder is 6 years old and in second grade. But this does not stop her mother, Jeanie McKnight, from thinking ahead to the high school years.

Their home near U.S. 19 and Alderman Road is 2.27 miles from Palm Harbor University High. When the Pinellas school choice plan was in force, McKnight figured she would have a good chance for a seat at Palm Harbor.

Then the district released drafts of school zone maps last summer as plans to replace the choice system gained steam. They indicated Palm Harbor could be the "close-to-home" high school for Joanna (Class of 2018). McKnight felt secure.

By Tuesday, however, her plans were derailed. District officials released final maps of the new close-to-home zones for middle and high schools, and they show that the zone for Tarpon Springs High now dips south of Alderman Road and into McKnight's subdivision, Cobb's Ridge.

"It's like they selectively went down there. ... It hurts," said McKnight, one of about 400 people who called the district's offices Wednesday to inquire or complain about the maps.

"The whole idea is it's supposed to be close to your home," she said. "(Tarpon) is not a neighborhood school. It's out of town. You have to go to another community."

Because the new maps lacked detailed information on streets and roads, many people called the district to confirm which zones they were in. Others contested the new boundaries. Some wanted to know how to change their school assignment or how a move would affect where their child is placed.

In a large district that routinely gets 300 to 500 calls a day, the volume was moderate. But district officials expected many more calls as residents study the new zones — including those for elementary schools, which are due to be released by Friday.

"I think people are just getting their first look at the maps," said School Board member Peggy O'Shea, who got a handful of calls from people questioning the new boundaries. "Tomorrow the phones may be ringing more."

Jim Madden, assistant superintendent for student assignment, said he spent much of his day talking to parents who wanted him to explain the rationale behind the zigs and zags of boundary lines that affected their children. Many had expected to be assigned to schools closer to their homes, he said.

For more than a year, district officials have been saying publicly that the new zones would not please everyone — that some families would find themselves closer to a school in a neighboring zone than the school they got.

No matter how you draw a zone, they said, some families will be at the outer edges.

That's one reason why district officials named them "close-to-home" schools instead of "neighborhood schools," and they cautioned that many would not be in the school closest to home.

"Each of you are probably going to get a lot of questions from a few very agitated folks," superintendent Clayton Wilcox told the School Board on Tuesday as the maps were released. He guessed that 2,000 of the estimated 106,000 public school families in Pinellas would be unhappy.

"When you're moving attendance lines, it is very difficult to come out of it with a win-win-win," Wilcox said. "Let's not lose sight of the 104,000 (families) that were well-served by it."

According to the district, several variables affected the map-making process, led by Madden.

Since the new plan allows students to stay in their current schools, the district focused on kids who naturally would move to a new school in August — those entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade.

First, the district admitted students who had applied for special programs such as magnets and fundamental schools. That gave them an idea how many open seats remained, and where they were.

They also studied population density, major roads and natural barriers such as lakes. They looked at neighborhoods and historical attendance patterns, trying not to draw lines that disrupted long-standing notions about what schools "belonged" to certain neighborhoods.

Also at play were policies that give siblings the right to attend schools together and the class-size amendment, which limits flexibility and makes it expensive for the district to handle quick fluctuations in enrollment.

None of which changes the picture for McKnight, who says a Tarpon High student in her neighborhood rises at 5:15 every morning for a 45-minute bus ride to school.

She doesn't want that for her daughter.

She hopes that the boundaries change again by the time Joanna enters ninth grade. "Or we can move," she said, speculating that the new zone reduced her property value because Palm Harbor is such a highly sought after school.

"I'm not a happy camper," McKnight said. "It changes the whole dynamic of things."

Thomas C. Tobin can be reached at or (727) 893-8923.

>>on the web

Need help?

To see electronic versions of the new "close-to-home" school zones, go to the Pinellas Schools Web site at or Families unsure about the zone boundaries should call the district's student assignment office at (727) 588-6210 or the call center at (727) 587-2020.

'Close to home' zones for schools? Not so much 04/09/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 15, 2008 9:12am]
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