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Pinellas County School Board's open enrollment irks parents

Hundreds of Pinellas parents descended on school district headquarters this week, intent on securing seats for their children under the new system of "close-to-home" schools.

About 90 percent of them already have their children in a Pinellas school but were requesting a different school under the new "open enrollment" process, district spokeswoman Andrea Zahn said.

Of the 3,800 families who requested changes under open enrollment, the district has accommodated more than 1,100 and was working to process more, Zahn said. But she added that spaces were filling up and time was running short.

Many families will not be notified of their status until Sunday. Classes begin Tuesday.

The new system, approved in December, returns Pinellas to a system of neighborhood schools after three decades of busing and a five-year "choice" plan that encouraged families to choose schools outside their neighborhoods.

Eventually, most families automatically will be enrolled in their zoned or "close-to-home" schools. But the transition away from choice will be slow.

To accommodate families who didn't want their children uprooted from their choice schools, the School Board allowed them to be "grandfathered" into those schools. That means thousands of "grandfathered" students are taking up seats that otherwise would go to students living close to those schools.

This spring, the district placed all students in entry level grades — kindergarten, sixth and ninth — in their close-to-home schools.

Open enrollment allows anyone who didn't like their assignment to apply for a change, provided there is room at the destination school.

On Friday, parents waiting for assignments crammed into a waiting room, a hallway and the employee cafeteria at district headquarters.

One of them was Minetha Morris, a candidate for School Board, who said she had waited more than two hours to meet with the student assignment office.

She was trying to move two of her children from Tyrone Elementary, which is moving to a new building farther away from her home. But finding a school to accommodate her son's special needs had complicated the task.

A frustrated Morris said she had been working on the problem for two months. She said of the new system: "It just put a big, massive problem in everyone's lap, like we anticipated."

Leslie Campillo, another parent, also fretted over her request to move her 13-year-old daughter to Meadowlawn Middle School.

She said the girl has had problems at her current school with threats, assaults and bullying.

On Friday, she was told the district wouldn't have an answer on the transfer until Sunday.

"I basically want to sit down and cry but I know it's not going to help," Campillo said. "I just thought it would be an easier process than this."

Her impression after visiting headquarters this week: "The system is just crashing. ... They didn't give themselves enough time."

Zahn said the estimated 1,000 parents who came to headquarters this week is less than 1 percent of the district. Compared with choice, she said, the system tries harder to accommodate families.

"We're just asking them to be patient," Zahn said. "I know it's last-minute, but we're trying to help them."

Pinellas County School Board's open enrollment irks parents 08/15/08 [Last modified: Thursday, August 21, 2008 2:27pm]
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