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]