Thursday, February 22, 2018
Education

Grego proposes dramatic expansion of Pinellas magnet schools

Faced with long waiting lists and the flight of frustrated parents to private and charter schools, superintendent Mike Grego will unveil next week a multiyear proposal to dramatically expand magnet programs in Pinellas County schools.

Under the proposal, five schools across the county would get new magnet programs.

In Clearwater, Sandy Lane Elementary would open a performing arts center similar to the popular one at Perkins Elementary in St. Petersburg. Tyrone Middle School in St. Petersburg would become a technology magnet. And three schools — Largo Middle, John Hopkins Middle and Mildred Helms Elementary — would open International Baccalaureate programs.

Grego said the proposal is preliminary and "subject to discussion." The School Board, which received it late Tuesday, will discuss it in a work session.

"We're going to go over the pros and cons of each of these," he said, adding that the School District is pursuing a federal grant that would help pay for the proposed expansion. However, the district could proceed even without the grant, he said.

If approved, the proposal could be a significant step toward addressing long waiting lists at some of the county's premier schools. It's notoriously difficult to get into the most popular schools, such as Perkins, which this year had 524 applications for 90 kindergarten seats.

"Our goal was to increase options for parents," Grego said. "This is another step in that direction."

Since his arrival about two years ago, Grego has pushed aggressively to expand educational opportunities, particularly in areas where some families have left the public schools. Enrollment has been declining in Pinellas district schools, while charter schools have grown.

For the 2014-15 school year, the district introduced four new middle school programs and reopened two closed elementary schools as technology magnets. Those programs have attracted about 1,300 students; it's not clear how many of those students already were in public schools.

Applications for special programs were up overall this year, and competition was fierce. About 10,406 students applied to at least one program, compared to 9,667 last year. Of those who applied this year, about 40 percent, or more than 4,000 students, didn't receive an invitation at all.

Before crafting his proposal, Grego said the School District surveyed parents about what programs would best suit their children's interests and abilities. Science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, was a top choice, as was fine arts and music.

The proposed expansion could, in some cases, offer families a long-term path from elementary to middle to high school. For instance, students could enter the new IB program at Mildred Helms Elementary, then enroll at the new IB program at Largo Middle, and finally attend the existing IB programs at either Palm Harbor University High or Largo High.

Some parents have complained about special programs, such as Gulfport Elementary's Montessori program, that don't have a clear track to middle and high school.

Grego's proposal has the new programs opening in phases, some as early as the 2015-16 school year, meaning applications could be taken in January. They also could start opening as late as 2017-18.

The proposal, however, has one glaring absence for many parents: It doesn't address the ongoing demand for seats in fundamental schools. Those schools, which emphasize parental involvement and good behavior, are among the toughest to get into, in part, because they give students priority admission in middle and high school once a seat is secured in the elementary grades.

Grego has said before that he doesn't have any immediate plans to add a fundamental school.

One big unknown, too, is how long it would take for the programs to gain traction. Parents often shy away from new programs and schools with poor reputations can be a tough sell.

John Hopkins Middle, for instance, has seen its grade steadily decline in recent years, falling to an F when the state released 2014 grades last week. In addition, the school's existing magnet programs in journalism and the arts haven't been popular.

School Board member Linda Lerner said she liked Grego's proposal, but wants to make sure the school system pursues arts, music and technology programs in all of its schools.

"I want every school to be a good choice," she said. "I think there will come a time when I would say, 'Okay, we have enough choices. Now I want to concentrate on every single school.' "

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @fitz_ly.

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