BROOKSVILLE — Every school day, hundreds of students who live near Hernando County's three magnet schools go right by them on the way to their zoned schools.
The School Board will soon consider: Should students who live within a certain distance from the magnet schools be given preference in the admissions process over students who apply based on talent and interest?
Superintendent Bryan Blavatt wants board direction on that question and other possible changes that would affect Challenger K-8 School of Science Mathematics, Chocachatti Elementary and Nature Coast Technical High.
Another proposal would transform Nature Coast into a cross between a neighborhood school and a technical center that draws students from throughout the county.
And the board will consider whether to tweak the percentage of students accepted by portfolio and by lottery at Challenger and Chocachatti. Currently, 70 percent are accepted by portfolio and 30 by lottery.
An advisory group comprised of parents, principals, teachers, and other district staffers came up with the proposals, though the results were not unanimous. The board got its first look at a draft policy during a workshop Tuesday and is scheduled to discuss them at its Oct. 18 workshop.
"What I'm presenting to you as superintendent is what the advisory committee has presented to me," Blavatt told board members Tuesday, anticipating the criticism from some parent members. "Please understand these recommendations don't necessarily correspond to the opinions or beliefs of everyone on the committee."
The draft policy gives students who live near Chocachatti and Challenger preference over students who apply by portfolio and lottery. The board would set the neighborhood zone for each school and decide what percentage of the school would be attended by neighborhood students; the suggested policy sets a limit of 40 percent. The change would take effect for the 2012-13 school year.
By then, Nature Coast would have a neighborhood zone, too, but the school also would also draw students from throughout the county who want to take upper-level technical courses in areas such as automotive or culinary arts. Nature Coast would be the only place in the county where some of those technical courses are offered, Blavatt said.
"So we don't duplicate our efforts," he said.
A majority of committee members agreed that it's fair to open the magnet schools to students who live nearby, Blavatt told the board. Several parents on the committee disagree with the idea.
Creating a partial neighborhood zone for the schools would undermine the point of the magnet programs, limiting the number of students who can apply from throughout the county, parent Laura Page told the board during the Tuesday workshop and again at the evening meeting.
"This would change the vision of what these magnet schools are all about," Page said.
When it comes to tweaking the ratio of portfolio to lottery admissions or making other changes, the three schools should be considered separately, Page and other parents contend. Challenger's math and science program, they point out, differs in fundamental ways from Chocachatti's arts program, so some policies governing admissions and other aspects should vary, too.
Kerry MacArthur, a parent with two children at Challenger and one applying to attend, told the board that creating a neighborhood zone at the two schools would alter what is now a successful dynamic created by students who worked hard to gain admission.
"The culture really changes," MacArthur said.
Parents also question whether the advisory committee's recommendation was an accurate reflection of how county residents and magnet parents feel about the issue, noting that most of the members are district employees.
"I don't see how someone whose career lies within Mr. Blavatt's hands can be impartial," Page said.
Blavatt acknowledged that the committee's recommendations correspond with his own views, but he noted that parents who disagree will have the opportunity to voice their thoughts to board members.
He dismissed concerns that allowing neighborhood children to attend the schools would have a negative impact.
"Magnets are not about who goes there, it's what programs are there," he said. "The program and the instruction is what make Chocachatti and Challenger what they are."
The debate about Hernando's magnet school programs is as old as the schools themselves. Some have argued that the schools' admission process and extra staff allocations make for a two-tier education system here.
It's an argument that Blavatt has encountered in other districts.
"As long as you have students who are in close proximity to schools and they're not allowed to attend those schools, that friction will take place," he said.
He has made it clear that a fundamental piece of his long term vision for Hernando is to make more magnet-type programs available to students in their neighborhood schools.
School Board member Dianne Bonfield argued for years that Challenger should accept some neighborhood children because of the overpopulation at nearby schools.
Now that Winding Waters K-8 has opened, space constraints are no longer an issue, but Bonfield says she's still open to new ideas, including partial zoning.
"The wonderful programs are still going to be there," she said. "The audience would change a bit."
Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or firstname.lastname@example.org.