After her daughter went through suspension-riddled Pinellas Park Middle School, Margaret Kennedy knew her son, a Boy Scout with braces who's bound for sixth grade, wouldn't do well.
"He'll get cannibalized," she said.
So Kennedy started looking for options. And this week, the state dropped one in her lap.
D-rated Pinellas Park Middle is among 20 schools around Tampa Bay and 159 statewide that are struggling so much, they must now offer thousands of students the chance to transfer to other public schools with better grades — and pay for the busing.
"I was thrilled," Kennedy said when she initially learned of the program. She thought it may give her son "an education that's not going to cause him emotional distress."
The program is a vestige of Florida's first private-school voucher program, and the result of another big push in the state Legislature this year to expand school choice.
It's less of a solution than parents like Kennedy want, because it only requires that districts give parents one other choice. And it might not be the choice they had in mind. In Kennedy's case, the district is offering C-rated Largo Middle and B-rated John Hopkins Middle.
At the same time, the requirement could be a headache for districts already wrestling with budget cuts and juggling kids because of other school choice mandates and the class-size amendment.
"It has the potential to definitely make things more complicated," said Pinellas deputy superintendent Jim Madden.
Championed by former Gov. Jeb Bush, the historic and hotly contested Opportunity Scholarships voucher program allowed students in schools that made two F grades in four years to transfer to private schools at public expense. After the Florida Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional in 2006, the state continued to quietly offer those students a public school option. But the program was no longer the center of controversy. Last year, it served 1,431 students from 24 schools.
In the spring, the Republican-dominated Legislature revived the program's profile. Instead of limiting its impact to a handful of chronically problematic schools, lawmakers expanded it to include schools that earn D's and F's and fall into the two most dire categories in the state's "differentiated accountability" system. Translation: a lot more schools.
The change also gives parents the option of a higher-rated school in another district, if they provide transportation.
The Tampa Bay area schools that must now offer Opportunity Scholarships include 10 in Hillsborough, six in Pinellas and four in Pasco.
Schools like Gibbs High in St. Petersburg made the list, even though it earned a C grade last year, because the points it earned on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test were still in the D range. Meanwhile, schools like Melrose and Maximo elementaries in St. Petersburg (both F's this year) and Roland Park K-8 in Tampa (a D) did not make the list because they are magnet schools.
Districts must notify parents about their options by Monday.
Pinellas will be sending out 5,695 letters; Hillsborough, about 7,000; Pasco, about 2,100.
Hillsborough only had one school last year where students had the ability to leave with a scholarship: Just Elementary. Of 540 students there, 50 transferred.
Hillsborough officials are still looking at the choices they will provide to the thousands of students who attend the schools on this year's list. Things such as transportation routes and classroom capacity must come into consideration, spokesman Stephen Hegarty said.
"The information has to be tailored to them," Hegarty said. "It's not just, 'Pick another school.' "
A similar program is in place. Under the No Child Left Behind law, districts are required to offer public school options to parents in high-poverty schools that repeatedly fail to meet federal standards. Generally speaking, few parents exercise that option.
In Pinellas, the rate is less than 2 percent. In Pasco, it's about 1 percent.
But there are differences with the voucher program. The latter doesn't come with busing money; the federal mandate does. No Child also does not give students the option to stay in their newly chosen feeder pattern through high school. The state law does.
(The Pasco school district has given families that ability through its No Child choice options, but it isn't required to do so.)
In Pasco, officials aren't expecting a stampede.
"It's not like we have droves of students wanting to take advantage of this," said Elena Garcia, the Title I supervisor for Pasco schools. "They like their neighborhood schools."
Pinellas officials were more cautious about the potential impact. This is the first time Pinellas has had to offer that kind of choice option for parents in middle and high schools, which tend to have bigger issues with discipline and reputation.
Pinellas Park Middle dropped from a C to a D this year. It drew headlines for a spike in arrests and suspensions.
Kennedy, whose son is zoned for the school, wants him to attend perpetually A-rated Osceola Middle. But she said she might choose Hopkins, which rose from C to B this year, because "at least there we know the school is improving."
"I just have one goal," Kennedy said. "That's to get my son the best education possible, with the least distractions."
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