Hernando parents worry as change looms for admission to magnet schools

BROOKSVILLE — The parents of magnet school students are restless again.

Back in 2007, the Hernando County School Board voted to change a policy that granted automatic admission to children with siblings already attending one of the district's three magnet schools. They agreed, however, that the change would not take effect until 2010, so siblings registering in the coming months for next fall will be the last ones to enjoy the benefit.

Now that the change is looming, parents plan to petition the board to scuttle the plan.

Keeping siblings together should be a priority for the district, parents say.

"We're trying to put family first," said Laura Page, whose daughter is in kindergarten at Chocachatti Elementary School south of Brooksville. Page, of Spring Hill, wants her 3-year-old daughter to attend Chocachatti, too.

"Having her going to a second school is only going to take away from the family time and the homework time, and if activities or events overlap, I'm going to be torn and will have to explain to one child why we're not going," Page said. "It's not fair to put that burden on the families to make that decision."

But parents are pushing for more than the resurrection of the sibling preference policy.

They want the district to put the brakes on a plan to phase out kindergarten admission based on talent and aptitude — the so-called portfolio process — and have all kindergarten students admitted by lottery.

And they are going on the offensive to head off the notion of at least one School Board member to remove kindergarten and first grade from the magnet program altogether.

Petitions are circulating, and so far several dozen people have signed, Page said.

The board meets for a workshop Tuesday afternoon to discuss revisions to the magnet school policy. Most are relatively minor tweaks, such as how staffers will review portfolios for students entering first grade and higher.

But the kindergarten lottery change, already approved by the board in June, also is included in the new language, and parents plan to lobby against that policy and for their other causes.

Sibling seats

In early 2007, some parents complained of the challenges of getting a seat for their children in magnet schools. Siblings, they said, took too many open seats at Chocachatti, which has a fine arts program, Challenger K-8 School of Science and Math and at Nature Coast Technical High School.

Data showed that siblings admitted automatically took a significant number of spots, especially at Challenger. That helped sway board members, and they voted to end the practice.

Board member Pat Fagan says he stands by his vote.

"I personally think it's only fair that everyone get an opportunity to attend the (magnet) school," Fagan said.

Board member Sandra Nicholson, who also voted in favor of the change, agreed and offered another reason.

"I just think that at a magnet school, with students there for programs, siblings may or may not qualify and should go through the portfolio system," Nicholson said.

The argument that families suffer by having students at different schools doesn't sway Nicholson. At one point while living in South Carolina, she had children at three schools.

"It's all part of being a parent," she said. "You make it work."

At a June workshop, a majority of board members agreed that all students entering first grade and higher at Challenger and Chochachatti would be accepted by portfolio starting next year. Nature Coast's admission ratio would be 60 percent portfolio, 40 percent lottery.

The board also made the change that rankles parents: Students entering kindergarten would be accepted only by lottery. Children that young, board members reasoned, can't really show much aptitude, and portfolios tend to be the work of parents, not the student.

But parents worry that the change goes against the fundamental goal of a magnet school.

"It seems to water down the school for the kids who do have talent," Page said.

Nicholson agrees.

"It defeats the whole concept," she said.

Nicholson has pitched her own idea for magnet admissions — one that has parents up in arms.

She proposes starting the magnet programs at second grade. Students would attend their zone schools in kindergarten and first grade. By then, Nicholson said, kids start to show aptitude in a subject, and teachers can help bolster portfolios with evidence.

"I've brought it up several times and nobody's supported it, but it makes sense to me," she said. "I've seen it work."

Parents say moving young children who are just starting to get acclimated to their schools would be too disruptive. Nicholson doesn't buy it. "Kids are very adaptable," she said.

Portfolio vs. lottery

Compromises may be in order, says parent Jennifer Ward.

Ward, a pediatrician, and her husband Joseph, a lawyer, decided to move from Palm Beach County to Brooksville a few years ago with Chocachatti in their sights.

"We were very happy and slightly surprised to find Hernando had an excellent reputation for its magnet schools," Jennifer Ward recalls.

The Wards now have three young boys. Their oldest son picked up the violin two years ago and got into kindergarten at Chocachatti by portfolio.

Ward agrees that having chance dictate who gets in at the kindergarten level contradicts the fundamental purpose of magnet programs. And she also understands the rationale behind ending automatic sibling preference.

"I don't think anyone wants a talented student to not have a spot because of a sibling," she said.

But instead of ending the policy outright, perhaps the district should admit, say, half of the students by portfolio and half by lottery, with siblings getting preference in the process instead of automatic admission, Ward said.

And, she says, maybe it's time to have different policies for Chocachatti and Challenger because aptitude in the arts is typically easier to see at a young age than math and science skills.

"Look at it as two different schools," Ward said. "I think you can make it work."

Jim Knight, director of student services, oversees the magnet program. He says it's probably time for a scientific approach to an issue that will likely continue to raise hackles.

His recommendation: Form a committee of parents and school officials to research the admissions policies of the 20 or so Florida districts that have magnet programs. Consider the pros and cons and make a list, Knight said.

"Instead of changing it every few years, really do some research, find what we like, and leave it," Knight said.

Ward's response: Where do we sign up?

"I think there are several parents who would gladly volunteer," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at tmarrero@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Hernando parents worry as change looms for admission to magnet schools 10/17/09 [Last modified: Saturday, October 17, 2009 11:30am]

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