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New plan for picking fundamental, magnet schools: Choose or lose

Pinellas County parents trying to get their kids into magnet or fundamental programs next year are likely to face a new system and tougher decisions: rank your favorite programs carefully — or risk getting shut out.

For the first time, Pinellas school officials are recommending that parents who apply list their choices in order.

However, only their first pick would have "priority" — which means a student is first in line because of siblings attending the same school or because they are feeding into the program from a designated magnet or fundamental program.

In the past, parents often applied to multiple programs and got invited to many — or none — but they always could fall back on either a sibling priority or their guaranteed spot at a feeder school.

"What we are trying to do is make sure the special programs out there have students who really want the program, not necessarily the school where the program is housed," said Jim Madden, Pinellas' deputy superintendent. "So that's where the ranking comes into play."

School officials began outlining the proposal to the Pinellas School Board on Tuesday as part of superintendent Julie Janssen's student achievement plan. The board is set to discuss student assignment during a workshop on Nov. 29, so school officials caution that things could still change. The board is scheduled to vote on it Dec. 7.

Parents can begin applying for magnet and fundamental programs on Jan. 29 for the 2011-12 school year. Here's how the new student assignment for those programs would work:

Parents rank their choices. If they get their top choice — and district officials said that will be their aim — parents would have a deadline to accept it and their name comes off the waiting lists for all their other choices.

If they want to stay on the list for a second or third choice, they would have to turn down the program that sent them an invitation — and lose any priority claim to a feeder school or one where a sibling attends.

So families should think hard about which program they really want, Madden said, and take into account the one that gives them the priority or risk giving up a guaranteed seat.

"We don't want people to outsmart themselves," he said.

Take a performing arts student at Perkins Elementary who has a seat waiting at John Hopkins Middle School's performing arts magnet. She would lose her spots at the head of the line for Hopkins if she ranked a different middle school as No. 1.

"That is the consequence of listing something other than a feeder pattern school," Madden said.

Another example: A fundamental middle school student who puts down a magnet program as his No. 1 choice instead of Osceola Fundamental High School stands to lose his status as a fundamental student.

Before, if he didn't get invited to the magnet, he was still first in line for Osceola High as his fallback. No longer. Under the new system, he goes to the back of the line behind the fundamental families who ranked it No. 1 and will be on equal footing with everyone else, fundamental or not, who applied to Osceola.

This has some fundamental parents concerned, because Osceola typically has a long waiting list.

Jennifer Crockett, a St. Petersburg mom of three whose eighth-grader is getting ready to pick a high school, said the change in policy sent her reeling at first.

"I didn't like it when I first saw this change because we were going along thinking we would apply to Lakewood CAT, IB and some others and see what we got and we knew that we always had Osceola as our backup," Crockett said. "So I had that initial panic and thinking, 'Oh, no!' because now it's possible he won't get into anything he wants.

"But then I got thinking: How many kids are on that wait list above me who don't want that as their first choice?"

Crockett is resigned to the possible changes. Maybe instead of wallpapering the system with applications to everything, Crockett hopes, it could get easier to get into a desired program because only people who really want to be there will rank it first.

Some parents, however, said they are frustrated by the nearly constant changes in Pinellas' student assignment system.

From school choice in 2003, which was abandoned in 2007, to the closing of several small schools in 2009 and now an overhaul of the magnet and fundamental system, it's hard for families to plan out a child's education track, said Pamela Arbisi, a St. Petersburg mom of an eighth-grader.

"I just think that there's too much coming too fast. It's not like pasta where you throw it against the wall and see what sticks," she said.

Arbisi hopes the district will eventually commit to a system and stick with it.

"What I would like is for them to say 'Looking about five years down the road, we need to reach this goal, and this is how we get there,' " Arbisi said.

Times researcher Natalie Watson contributed to this report.

.Q&A

Many changes proposed in new policy

How does it work now?

Parents applying to magnet and fundamental programs have been able to list multiple programs but could still turn them down and fall back on their feeder school or the school attended by a sibling.

How could it work for the 2011-12 school year?

Families would rank their top five choices but the priority given to students with a sibling at the same school or those coming from a designated feeder program will only be applied to the No. 1 pick. You lose priority with the rest of your choices.

What happens next?

The Pinellas School Board will discuss the proposed changes at a workshop Nov. 29. No public comment is allowed during workshops. The board will vote Dec. 7 on superintendent Julie Janssen's student achievement plan, including any possible revisions to applying for magnet and fundamental programs. The public can comment during the school board meeting.

Where can I read more about the proposed changes?

Go to pcsb.org and click on "Magnet, Fundamental, Career Academy Programs Handbook (Subject to change)" under PCS News.

If the changes are approved, how can I learn more or ask school officials questions about it?

The district is holding information fairs on the following dates:

• Jan. 22, Northeast High, 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

• Jan. 27, Gibbs High, 6-8 p.m.

• Feb. 1, Dunedin Highland Middle, 6-8 p.m.

If the new rules are approved what's the most important thing to consider when applying?

Think hard about what program you and your child want. Don't put a school in the No. 1 position unless you plan to accept it because the rest of your choices may not offer your child a seat in their program.

When can I apply?

The application period runs from Jan. 29 through Feb. 20. That also includes career academy schools. Families learn if they've been accepted into a program — and can accept or decline an invitation — between March 14 and March 20.

New plan for picking fundamental, magnet schools: Choose or lose 11/20/10 [Last modified: Saturday, November 20, 2010 1:30pm]

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