TRINITY — With her home life in flux, Faith Graves came to find Longleaf Elementary School a place of stability.
"I've been involved in a lot of things," said Faith, a rising fifth-grader who has attended Longleaf for the past two years, while her family has moved several times amid home and rental foreclosures. "I was in student council. I ran for vice president. I've got student of the month. It's just a really great school and I have a bunch of great friends. . . . I just really wanted to spend my last year here."
But when Faith's family reapplied in spring for school choice to remain at Longleaf — they live in the Cotee River Elementary zone — they were rejected. Their appeal for reconsideration was turned down, too.
"We really cried hard last night," Shannon Graves, Faith's mom, said Thursday after receiving the notification.
In a typical year, the district turns down 5 to 10 percent of the school choice applications, in which families ask to send their children to a school outside their zone.
But this year, with the final piece of the class size amendment kicking in, the Graves family and hundreds more are caught up in a crackdown on school choice.
Pasco schools have rejected a third of the 2,705 students who applied for school choice. It has yet to even consider another 1,111 that missed the March 1 deadline.
"We at the district have tried for years to allow as much school choice as possible," superintendent Heather Fiorentino said. "We realize happy parents and happy kids make happy schools."
But the last stage of the 2002 class size amendment requires districts to limit the number of students in every core curriculum classroom. School averages, counted for the past three years, no longer are good enough.
If the district fails to meet the mark in even one classroom, it faces fines of up to $11 million. Lawmakers have refused to soften the penalties; voters decide in a November referendum whether to scale back the mandate for school averages.
And that leaves the district with the widespread rejection of school choice requests, particularly campuses where enrollment already is over capacity. If Amendment 8 fails, the denials are expected to increase.
"We do not have an option," School Board vice chairwoman Joanne Hurley said. "We cannot fail at meeting the class size amendment. There is just too stiff a penalty. Unfortunately, some of the parents are caught up in the issue."
In most other years, Faith, 11, would not even have faced the question of whether she could return to Longleaf.
Pasco schools long have held that, once approved, children on choice could continue at their schools without reapplying. The only time that doesn't happen is if the school has been rezoned, as Longleaf was as part of the opening this August of Odessa Elementary nearby.
Even then, students entering their final year at a school would usually be protected, too.
"I honestly thought there wouldn't be a problem," Shannon Graves said.
But class size had district reviewers looking not just at space availability within schools, but also at space at each grade level in individual classrooms.
"We have to leave enough room in each classroom for students who live in the zone," district spokeswoman Summer Romagnoli said.
That effort has made for some difficult decisions.
Consider the situation Jenifer Mendillo found herself in.
Her family lives in the Chasco Elementary zone, but her daughter Ayla Driggers has attended Cypress Elementary for two years through school choice because of child care needs.
When Mendillo sought to enroll her younger daughter, Alyssa Driggers, into kindergarten at Cypress, she got a rude awakening.
"They rejected her," Mendillo said. "They accepted my oldest daughter but they didn't accept my youngest daughter. . . . Obviously, I'm not going to have two kids at two different schools. Now I have to figure out what to do."
Like Graves, Mendillo was given a lottery number for her daughter to get in to the school of her choice. The catch is, she would have to wait four weeks into the school year to find out if the school has enough open seats to match her number.
The question becomes: Do you switch your child's school at the beginning of the year and then change again if your number comes up? How much disruption does a child need?
As Graves said, "I hate to keep her hoping."
Mendillo got lucky on appeal.
"They reviewed her application and they APPROVED it!" she wrote last week in an e-mail to the Times. "YAY!"
Out of luck
The Graves family and others have not had similar good fortune in the process.
Doug Benoit's daughter Sara has attended Trinity Elementary on choice for two years so she can go to school closer to the family business, which has struggled to make ends meet during the economic downturn. The family lives in the zone for Seven Springs Elementary.
Benoit didn't think he had to reapply for Sara's choice. But like Longleaf, Trinity Elementary was rezoned because of the opening of Odessa Elementary, and everyone had to reapply. Benoit said he didn't receive the messages from the district saying so, and he missed the application deadline.
Only in April, when his wife was volunteering at the school, did anyone from Trinity inquire as to whether Sara would return in the fall. Benoit said he called the district as soon as possible to get his choice application in.
In past years, the district could usually accommodate families, even if they missed the deadline. Not this time.
Benoit said people who answered the phones told him he should have been more responsible in knowing the rules and meeting the deadlines.
"I was talked to like I was a dolt," he said.
Worse for him, Sara would not be reaccepted at Trinity. She might have a chance to get back in, but only after four weeks of the new school year through the lottery.
Making the decision particularly upsetting to the family was that even though they missed its deadline, the district took nearly four months to go through the applications, not notifying anyone until late June.
Romagnoli acknowledged that, due to budget cuts, the district had just one overwhelmed secretary working on school choice after the supervisor retired this year, creating delays and fueling terse exchanges with the public. She said another person has been assigned to help complete the work.
That's little comfort to the Graves family, which now faces the tough decision over what to do next.
Young Faith is holding out hope.
"It's a great school," she said of Longleaf. "It has a great education and I really like it a lot."
But if things don't work out, she continued, "I know that God is pointing me in the right path. I will be upset, but I know it's for a reason."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at blogs.tampabay.com/schools.