The Pinellas School Board and superintendent Clayton Wilcox have designed a new student assignment plan. The board approved the plan Dec. 18, 2007. Here are some questions and answers to bring you up to speed.
Updated April 11, 2008
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What does the new plan do?
It changes the way Pinellas students are assigned to schools, steering most students into a school close to home but offering families other choices as well. The plan also slightly reduces the number of schools to address enrollment declines. Every school will be surrounded by a zone, and students will be assigned to the school in the zone where they live. The district is calling this your "close-to-home" school. Students can attend their close-to-home school or apply for a magnet program, fundamental school or another special program. They also can ask to attend any regular school in the county, provided that school had space and the student can get there without a district bus ride. The district will gradually increase the number of fundamental schools to give families more choices. Two St. Petersburg elementaries - Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. and James B. Sanderlin — have been added to the mix of full-fledged magnet schools. Zones will be structured to make it easier for families to predict which schools their children would attend from kindergarten to high school. The School Board has approved the closing of three schools: Largo Central and South Ward elementaries, and Riviera Middle School.
When will the plan take effect?
When the 2008-09 school year starts on Aug. 19, 2008, but the process of assigning students begins now.
How is it all happening?
The first step was the February 2008 application period for special programs such as magnets, fundamental schools and career academies. Students who accepted invitations to those programs were assigned to them in mid-March. The next step comes in April 2008 when the district assigns students who have not chosen a special program or been invited to one. The students in this group are those who naturally will rise to a new school in August — in other words kids entering kindergarten, sixth grade and ninth grade. Most of these students will be automatically assigned to their close-to-home schools. Those with siblings at another school will be automatically assigned to the sibling's school.
My child is entering kindergarten. How do I get him assigned to a school?
Starting April 21, parents of prospective kindergarteners will be able to visit any Pinellas public elementary school to get a User ID and password allowing them to access the new Student Reservation System. Parents will be able to enroll their child from their home computer or a special computer at the school. They also will need to deliver required documents such as proof of birth and residence to the assigned school.
When will I find out what my close-to-home school is?
The district has released maps showing the close-to-home zones around each elementary, middle and high school. Students entering sixth and ninth grades next school year will be mailed letters on April 18 officially informing them of their close-to-home school assignment.
What if I don't like my close-to-home school and I don't get into a magnet or fundamental school? Will I have other options?
Yes. The district will have a new "open enrollment period" for special cases. The district says it will work with families to get them into a school they like, provided that school has space and the family provides its own transportation. The district is working on a system for deciding which students get first dibs on available seats. The period is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 4-15, but an earlier time is being considered, perhaps in June.
What if my new "close-to-home" school is not the one my child is in now? Can't we just stay at our current school instead of being uprooted?
Yes. The School Board will allow all students to be "grandfathered" into their current schools. In fact, most students will be automatically assigned to their existing school. Those who qualify will continue to receive bus service. This is a change from early versions of the plan, which would have forced many families to move schools next year and would have denied them bus service if they opted to be grandfathered. The board changed those provisions after complaints from parents.
My child is not due to move to another school next year so she won't be automatically assigned to a close-to-home school. But I want her to move to our close-to-home school right away. Is that possible?
It is possible, but only if your close-to-home school has room for her.
So, is it true that some schools won't have enough seats for all the students who live in their zones?
Initially, yes. Many schools will be filled with out-of-zone students who want to be grandfathered there. At some schools, the district will try to accommodate both the grandfathered and in-zone students by adding portable classrooms. But that won't be possible everywhere. At schools where there are more students applying than seats available, grandfathered students will be allowed to remain. After that, students who live closest to the school will get priority.
What if I move to Pinellas County after the assignment process ends, or I move within Pinellas during the school year?
The district will work with families in those situations to get students into a school they like. However, assignments will be based on whether space is available at a school. If they wish, students who move out of their zone in the middle of the academic year may stay at their old close-to-home school for the rest of the academic year.
How will students with special needs be accommodated under the new plan?
The district will work to assign disabled students and non-English-speaking students to schools that have programs to handle their needs. For example, not every school will be able to accommodate children with autism. But several schools will, and the district says families will be able to exercise their options among those schools.
We just got used to the school choice plan. Why is the school district changing its system again?
It all goes back to the lawsuit filed in 1964 by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, which claimed Pinellas schools gave black students an inferior education. The lawsuit led to three decades of busing. After settlement negotiations in the late 1990s, the court declared that the district no longer discriminated against black students and the choice plan emerged as way to ease the system away from busing. Under the settlement, a "controlled choice" system was in place from 2003 to 2007, encouraging families to choose schools outside their neighborhoods while using ratios to keep schools racially balanced. The 2007-08 school year is serving as a transition period in which the race ratios expire while the choice system remains in place. The settlement contemplated that the district could craft a new system for the 2008-09 school year. District officials returned to a system of neighborhood schools because that's what a majority of parents said they wanted.
Will the new plan still try to keep schools racially integrated?
To some extent. Under the plan, several schools will be mostly black. A major factor is the U.S. Supreme Court, which recently limited what districts can do to achieve integrated schools. The ruling prohibits schools from sorting children based on race, but suggests other integration methods might be allowed. Pinellas officials are saying they will rely mostly on magnet programs and fundamental schools to help create diversity at some schools. Both types of programs tend to draw a diverse mix of parents. Another feature that could help create diversity will be an open enrollment period allowing students to explore other options outside their zone when they don't get into a school they like.
One of the "guiding principles" of the new plan is that "every student should have access to peers from multiple cultures and diverse backgrounds." How is that possible if the district can no longer impose race ratios in schools?
It's safe to say that the definition of diversity is rapidly changing in Pinellas. It used to be defined in terms of "black" and "nonblack" students, a result of the 1964 lawsuit that for decades was a major factor in how the district filled its schools. Today, the landscape is different. Many black families no longer see busing as the ticket to a good education. The courts won't allow it anyway. And demographics are changing. Hispanic students are the fastest growing ethnic group in Pinellas schools, up 17 percent since 2003. White enrollment is down 14 percent and black enrollment down 11 percent. Schools may be diverse, but in ways that will be different from past years.
Will the bus system change?
Yes, but the details are unclear for now. With students in schools closer to home the number of bus routes will shrink and runs will be shorter. Officials are hoping they can reduce the number of bus routes to 650 or 700 — down from about 800. They also plan to have an "arterial" system that would bus students long distances to attend magnet programs or high schools outside their area.
Why is the district closing schools as part of this plan?
Enrollment is down and is projected to sink lower. Wilcox says the situation is increasing the district's overhead costs. Enrollment in Pinellas public schools hit an all-time high of 112,333 in 2001, but the numbers have been slipping since then. The state projects that Pinellas will be a district of 102,800 students by 2010.
Closing schools makes no sense to me. I see portable classrooms at many schools, presumably to relieve overcrowding.
Many schools have portables, also known as "relocatables." Some schools don't. Portables are used to help the district adjust to changing, often temporary, conditions at individual schools. Not all portables are used to relieve overcrowding. Top administrators see enrollment decline as a district-wide issue because the loss of students happens in ones, twos or threes across the county, not in big clusters at individual schools. Countywide, elementary schools were 95 percent full last year. If no elementary schools are closed, projections indicate they would be 92 to 93 percent full over the next two or three years. That means the district would be using tax money to maintain more empty seats.
What will happen to all those students and teachers whose schools will be closed?
Students will be absorbed into other schools, but many of the details are pending. On Oct. 23, the district released a chart showing where students at each of the schools might end up under the new assignment plan. At Riviera Middle School, for example, students will fan out to 10 other schools next year. The top four are Meadowlawn, John Hopkins, Azalea and Bay Point middle schools. Here is a list of the soon-to-be-closed elementary schools and the top four schools their students would be sent to: Largo Central Elementary — Belcher, Ponce de Leon, Belleair and Mildred Helms; South Ward Elementary — Belleair, Ponce de Leon, Skycrest and North Ward. Teachers and other employees will move to other schools according to district and union rules. Some have moved already.
Won't the closings mean layoffs for some teachers?
District officials and union leaders say teachers won't be laid off because the district typically needs all the teachers it can get. At least 600 teachers resign or retire each year. The impact on other employees is unclear.
Why are fundamental schools such a big part of this plan?
They are popular, less expensive to operate and they typically draw a diverse mix of families. Having more of them would attract some families to schools outside their neighborhoods, thereby increasing diversity. Fundamental schools offer a back-to-basics approach with mandated parent involvement, nightly homework, low tolerance for behavior problems and a dress code that is more stringent than that of other schools. The curriculum is generally the same as it is across the district.
How will the plan affect high schools?
Students entering high school will be assigned to their close-to-home school. If that school does not have enough room, they will be assigned to next closest school. High school students will have other options besides going to their close-to-home school. They will be able to apply for magnet programs, career academies or one of the new "centers of excellence" set up to give students the technical skills and certifications needed to enter the work world after graduation. Additional options will include partnership schools or charter schools that offer the chance to earn college credit. Students also will be able to enroll in any other high school in the county, provided there is space. Students who use this option also will have to get their own ride to school or agree to "arterial" bus service, which is less convenient than regular bus service.
How will the plan affect magnet schools?
They will remain intact. Students currently in a magnet school or program will not have to move to another school. The three magnet elementary schools in St. Petersburg — Bay Point, Melrose and Perkins — will stay in place. Starting in August 2008, the district will turn Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary and James B. Sanderlin Elementary, both in St. Petersburg, into full-fledged magnet schools. The two new magnets — plus Bay Point, Melrose and Perkins — will be filled using a countywide application process. Also, the district will continue to offer special programs at its "area magnet" schools — Campbell Park, Gulfport, Lakewood and Maximo elementaries. Those schools first will take applications from students in a wide area of south Pinellas. After that, any remaining seats will go to students who live near those schools and who agree to participate in a magnet program. There are no plans to change or replicate another magnet, The Center for Gifted Studies at Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo.