Monday, December 11, 2017
Education

Getting picked for Pinellas' magnet, fundamental programs is tougher than it may appear

In Pinellas County, high school open houses aren't just for middle schoolers any more.

Brad Finkbiner, assistant principal at Osceola Fundamental High, has been giving more and more tours to parents of elementary school students.

The reason: If you want a spot at the popular high school, get in the pipeline early or get shut out.

But even as thousands of Pinellas families plunge into the cross-your-fingers process, the odds of getting into one of the district's magnet or fundamental programs are tougher than many parents realize.

"I don't know how I got to be so lucky! I feel like I won the lottery. This is better than money," said Teresa McHann. Her son, Dylan, won a sixth-grade spot at Madeira Beach Fundamental Middle, the most requested middle school.

This year, 55 percent of all students invited to at least one magnet program for the 2012-13 school year already had priority for a seat, district figures show. Osceola High, the most highly sought-after program in the county this year — 826 ninth-grade applications for 447 seats — invited 468 students to attend. All had priority.

Those with priority include students already in feeder magnets or fundamentals, those with siblings in the program, children of employees at the school and those who live nearby.

Students who applied without any of those advantages could very well find themselves without any magnet options at all.

Pinellas is in the second year of a new system that requires families to rank up to five program choices, a process that appears to put those who choose the most popular programs as their No. 1 choice at a higher risk of not getting any invitations at all.

The district-wide figures seem to tell the story.

Of 9,346 students who applied during Pinellas County's initial magnet application period, 49 percent landed their first choice. But another 43 percent of the students didn't get invited anywhere, district spokeswoman Melanie Marquez said.

That indicates only 8 percent of applicants landed an offer from a school other than their first-choice school. On Monday, schools will begin calling families who are on waiting lists to offer them some of the 544 seats still open districtwide.

According to Dee Burns, the district's director of student assignment, the new system is still an improvement over two years ago when students didn't rank their choices at all. Back then, she said, some students received multiple invitations while others came up empty-handed.

"This year," she said, "not as many put down five applications. ... I think the average was about four. Some people just applied to one."

School Board members signed off on the new ranking process in part to help families have a better chance of getting into the school they really wanted.

But Jean Willingham, a parent of four and a fundamental schools advocate who supported the ranking system, said that in many cases students really only have one choice. Or, in the case of about 229 students hoping to attend Osceola, "no choice."

That's because 649 rising ninth-graders ranked Osceola their No. 1 pick — 229 more students than were guaranteed spots at the school based on priority. Of the 468 students who were already promised a spot:

• 420 attended fundamental middle schools.

• 45 have siblings at the school.

• Three have parents who work at the school.

Had some of the parents known that by picking Osceola as their top choice they were essentially only competing for a slot on a waiting list, would they still have picked it?

"We understand their frustration," said assistant principal Finkbiner. "We are always up front with folks about the opportunity, the possibility to get in."

Willingham said she's not sure what the immediate solution is, but she has long sought to see the district add more of the high-demand choices parents want.

"It's back to the drumbeat," said Willingham, who is active with the Fundamental Schools Advocacy Network. "Expand these fundamental and magnet programs until supply matches demand."

Word that her son, Dylan, 11, had been accepted to Madeira Beach was a surprise — and a relief — to Teresa McHann.

"It was just such a burden lifted," she said.

With more than 818 sixth-grade applicants at Madeira, Dylan's best bet of getting one of the 227 invitations would have been if he was already enrolled in one of the county's six fundamental elementary schools, had a sibling there, had a parent who worked there or lived close by.

Dylan had none of those advantages. He attends Orange Grove Elementary and lives in the Pinellas Park area. His zoned school is Pinellas Park Middle, a D school.

McHann said she doesn't know of any other families who got into Madeira. Dylan's best friend was one of 311 automatically wait-listed, according to district data. Schoolwide, Madeira Beach sent 180 invitations to students with priority.

"No wonder I don't know anybody who got in," McHann said.

Burns, the district's director of student assignment, said competition for magnet and fundamental seats is perhaps no more intense than in kindergarten.

In the most recent application period, parents of kindergartners sent 4,787 applications vying for 846 seats in 12 schools.

The district last week could not provide comprehensive figures for all schools showing, by grade, how many invitations were given to students with priority.

But consider Pasadena Fundamental Elementary in St. Petersburg, the most popular elementary program based on applications: 611 students applied for 71 seats. The district reports that 33 students across all grades received invitations to attend Pasadena because they either had a sibling there (21), a parent who teaches there (two) or because they live near the school (10).

Even if only a fraction of those priority invitations were given for kindergarten, it could significantly decrease a family's shot at getting a spot.

Burns said many parents realize they need to have a strategy when they apply. When one parent started asking questions recently about her chances of getting her child into a program, Burns had to stop her.

"You're asking me to be your bookie," Burns said jokingly. "That's not in my job description."

"It's a perception," Burns said of the demand. "It's a perception that if something has a limit to it that it has more value. … Many times once parents get to their kindergarten and they go to their zoned school, they're as happy as can be."

But School Board members Robin Wikle and Linda Lerner said the district can do better communicating with parents about their odds of getting accepted into a magnet program before they rank it No. 1.

And Wikle agrees expansion of such programs is warranted.

Board member Janet Clark said the problem is bigger than priority and rankings.

"I don't think it's actually a fair system," Clark said. "Until all of our schools are good schools our fundamentals are going to have that attraction, they're going to have that cachet."

Staff writers Connie Humburg and Emily Rieman contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at (727) 893-8707 or [email protected]

Comments
‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey has learned all the tricks to get her kids out of bed and off to school every morning. But this year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every school day with a knot i...
Updated: 8 hours ago

University of Central Florida Greeks won’t hold social events, serve alcohol for 6 weeks this spring

ORLANDO — University of Central Florida fraternities and sororities won’t host social activities or any events with drinking for at least the first six weeks of the spring semester, up from the two-week ban on alcohol that has been in place in the pa...
Published: 12/08/17
Amid reports of rapes, beatings, cover-ups, grand jury to probe juvenile justice abuses

Amid reports of rapes, beatings, cover-ups, grand jury to probe juvenile justice abuses

Disturbed by stories about the rape of teens by supervisory staff, a pandemic of sometimes savage force, brutal beatdowns ordered by youth care workers and policies that permit the hiring of violent offenders, Miami-Dade’s state attorney wants to kno...
Published: 12/07/17
Henderson: Some basic facts about Hillsborough’s teacher pay imbroglio

Henderson: Some basic facts about Hillsborough’s teacher pay imbroglio

Hillsborough County’s public school teachers are horn-honking, voice-raising, sign-waving, foot-stomping mad, and I can’t blame them. They are paying for a problem they didn’t create. About one-third of the workforce was expecting to receive a $4,000...
Published: 12/07/17
In Watershed Ambassadors Program, Pasco students learn about natural Florida

In Watershed Ambassadors Program, Pasco students learn about natural Florida

SPRING HILL — On a small wooden dock at the Cross Bar Ranch, Cynthia Brinker gingerly pokes through the trappings in her fishing net, plucking out a tiny creature to examine close up. "What the heck is this?" the Weightman Middle School studen...
Published: 12/06/17
Updated: 12/07/17
Crognale named 2018 Hernando Principal of the Year

Crognale named 2018 Hernando Principal of the Year

BROOKSVILLE — For just a year and a half, Steve Crognale has been the principal at the Endeavor and Discovery Academies. But now, he’s been named the Hernando School District Principal of the Year for 2018. Endeavor serves students, most of them hig...
Published: 12/06/17
‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

‘It’s like an insane nightmare’: Parents question private company hired to drive special needs kids to school

RIVERVIEW — As a foster parent with two sons of her own, Kayla Storey is skilled at calming first-day-of-school jitters. But this school year, Storey says she’s the one waking up every weekday with a knot in her stomach.It’s been there ever since th...
Updated: 9 hours ago
Why do universities handle sexual assault cases, anyway?

Why do universities handle sexual assault cases, anyway?

News stories about campus sexual assault often get the question, "Why do schools handle these cases, anyway?"Readers often wonder how universities got tasked with handling these convoluted cases in the first place. Where, they ask, do the police come...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/11/17
Hillsborough teachers keep the heat on after $92 bonus offer

Hillsborough teachers keep the heat on after $92 bonus offer

TAMPA — The second Hillsborough County School Board meeting in less than a month took place Tuesday against a backdrop of honking car horns, cheering teachers and audience members moving through the room in shifts.Dressed in blue union-issued T-shirt...
Published: 12/05/17
Updated: 12/06/17
Hillsborough school district names Teacher of the Year finalists

Hillsborough school district names Teacher of the Year finalists

Finalists were announced Tuesday for Hillsborough County Teacher of the year and other honors.Winners will be announced at a banquet on Jan. 16.The finalists for teacher of the year are: Jennifer Jackson, seventh grade science, Stewart Middle; Alexa ...
Published: 12/05/17