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In Pinellas, booming fundamental schools give some a pause

Wendy Clark of Old Northeast, reading with daughters Lauren, 4, left, and Evie, 8, says she likes the challenging environment of Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, Evie’s new school.

CHERIE DIEZ | Times

Wendy Clark of Old Northeast, reading with daughters Lauren, 4, left, and Evie, 8, says she likes the challenging environment of Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary, Evie’s new school.

You won't hear much grumping about this fall's historic expansion of fundamental schools, a unique-to-Pinellas creation that stresses parental involvement.

It saves money. It thrills parents.

What's not to like?

Maybe, nothing. But quietly and carefully, some Pinellas County School Board members say the rapid growth makes them wary about the potential for unintended consequences.

"If we keep on creating fundamental seats and fundamental schools, I can see an eventual two-tiered system," said board member Janet Clark.

Would that be bad? "It would be for the kids who are the have-nots."

With little fanfare, fundamental schools are enjoying the biggest boom in their 33-year history. The numbers will be up 1,480 seats this fall, to a total of 7,176 at nine schools. That's up from about 2,500 seats just five or six years ago.

This year's increase includes more than 200 new seats at Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School in St. Petersburg and the conversion of an entire elementary school, Madeira Beach, into a fundamental. (That school is also being merged into a K-8 with the consolidation of Madeira Beach Middle and Southside Fundamental Middle.)

The School Board okayed the expansion as part of a package deal that included closing six schools and consolidating four more.

Because most fundamental parents must provide their kids' transportation, the new seats will save the district money.

They'll also make parents swoon. At least the ones who win the nail-biting lottery that determines who gets in.

"Excited and relieved" is how Wendy Clark described her reaction after learning that her 8-year-old, Evie, had won a slot at Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary. Evie had been attending Canterbury private school.

"I wasn't comfortable necessarily that the neighborhood school was quite right for her," said Clark, who lives in the Old Northeast section of St. Petersburg. "I was just concerned that … it wouldn't be challenging enough for her."

Fundamental schools are "back to basics" schools that stress discipline and academics. They require parents to participate and students to behave. If either parents or students fall short, students can be transferred.

The result: Fundamentals are some of Pinellas County's safest schools. And among its top tier academically.

Lakeview Fundamental Elementary in St. Petersburg was No. 1 in Pinellas, according to the state's Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test-based point system. Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary was No. 2. Both are among the top 2 percent in the state.

Putting more kids into fundamentals this year is a good thing, said board member Linda Lerner. But not without potential tradeoffs.

She worries the lack of transportation is leaving some low-income families out of the loop. And then, she said, there's an issue that doesn't get talked about much: the effect that fundamental schools may be having on non-fundamentals.

If some of the most involved parents — and some of the highest-performing students — are being taken out of many schools and concentrated into a few fundamentals, does that make the teaching and learning in non-fundamentals that much harder?

Nobody knows. Nobody's looked. "But any further expansion needs more in-depth analysis about the impact," Lerner said.

Janet Clark said she was especially concerned that fundamentals may be siphoning away top students from struggling schools.

"They're not coming out of Ridgecrest (or) Garrison Jones (elementaries)," she said. "When you pull out that certain percentage to put into a fundamental, who does that leave for kids to aspire to, to model?"

Fair questions, said Barbara Baugher, a mother of four girls in St. Petersburg. But she thinks the expansion was right because parents wanted it.

"It's benefiting me tremendously," she said.

Years ago, Baugher's oldest daughter won a lottery slot at Pasadena Fundamental Elementary. Her next two daughters got in because of the district's sibling preference rule.

But things didn't look as bright for her youngest, Ashley. Since Ashley was going into kindergarten this year just as daughter No. 3 was headed to middle school, the sibling rule didn't look like it would help Ashley get into a fundamental.

But then, the district created the new K-8 fundamental at Madeira Beach, which is where her two middle daughters will be.

So, Ashley's in. And Mom's happy.

Ron Matus can be reached at matus@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8873.

A fundamental expansion

Here are the enrollment figures for each of the fundamental schools in Pinellas County.

School 20082009
Bay Vista Fundamental Elementary638648
Curtis Fundamental Elementary464537
Lakeview Fundamental Elementary344338
Pasadena Fundamental Elementary463461
Tarpon Springs Fundamental Elementary262269
Madeira Beach Fundamental (K-5)0379
Madeira Beach Fundamental (6-8)0990
Coachman Fundamental Middle565865
Southside Fundamental Middle6080
Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle747979
Osceola High1,6051,710
Total5,6967,176

Source: Pinellas County School District

In Pinellas, booming fundamental schools give some a pause 08/08/09 [Last modified: Saturday, August 8, 2009 9:30pm]
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