For years, Pinellas County students on track for a prestigious International Baccalaureate program knew they'd get the best. If they could get in.
They were either headed to Palm Harbor University High, where the IB program is consistently rated one of the best in North America, or to St. Petersburg High, where the IB program is a big reason the school has climbed as high as No. 25 in Newsweek's annual list of best high schools.
But no more.
Last month the Pinellas school board approved the creation of a new IB program at Largo High School. Now, IB-bound kids in a big swath of central Pinellas will go to a D-rated school that many of their parents don't think is good enough.
Some of those parents say they won't send their children there. A few are even taking a hard look at the IB program at Clearwater Central Catholic school, where tuition runs about $10,000 a year.
"It's disheartening," said Rachelle Stockings, whose son, a straight-A eighth-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald Middle, was planning to attend the IB at St. Petersburg High. "The dropout rate at Largo is … a little scary."
The School Board okayed the Largo IB as part of superintendent Julie Janssen's plan to give more students access to high-flying academic programs. The additional IB seats are expected to whittle down the long list of qualified students who can't get into the existing IB programs because there isn't room. But at the same time, they're stoking different worries.
Bill Lawrence, the district's director of advanced studies, said Largo's IB will quickly become as good as its sister programs once it gets rolling this fall. The district has socked away plenty of money for training new IB teachers.
"Every program has to start somewhere," Lawrence said.
As for the complaints: "I believe there are equal numbers (of parents) that are saying, 'Thank God there is another IB program for us to apply to, and I'm glad it's closer to my house.' "
Until now, IB-seeking students in north Pinellas applied to Palm Harbor University High, those in south county applied to St. Petersburg High and a few in the middle applied to one or the other. Under the new system, students zoned for Clearwater, Largo, Seminole, Pinellas Park and Dixie Hollins high schools can apply only to the Largo IB.
The application period runs from Jan. 29 to Feb. 20.
Lawrence said a combination of factors led the district to choose Largo, including location and capacity. The district also wanted to spread out its magnet programs so there would be more equity between schools.
In the past five years, Largo has earned two C's and three D's from the state. Its 76.8 graduation rate is the lowest in the district.
"The main problem is its reputation," said Tom D'Annunzio, whose daughter, another eighth-grader at Morgan Fitzgerald, was a teen "Jeopardy" champ. D'Annunzio worried that it would be harder for the program to get fully accredited at Largo — so much so that he's considering private school for his daughter.
"Would you be more comfortable sending her to a brand-spanking-new program, untried, untested … or to Clearwater Catholic, where they have 400 kids, all 400 are motivated students?" he said. "We're not mean people here. We're trying to do the best thing for (our child.)"
There is clearly a buzz among parents at Morgan Fitzgerald, which has a gifted magnet. Some said they don't think the district is doing enough to make them comfortable with the change.
"I haven't found a single person who said they're going to apply to Largo's IB program," said Dan Tumarkin, who has a sixth-grader in the gifted program at Fitzgerald.
The response from Largo High's principal: We're not what you've heard.
"What I would ask them to do is visit the school," said Marjorie Sundstrom, who worked closely with the IB program at St. Petersburg High when she was an assistant principal there. "I'll have them walk the halls. My kids say thank you. They open doors for people. I don't really have any question that (the new IB program) is going to be awesome."
Parents can learn more about the IB program at the school's "discovery night" on Feb. 10, or attend any of three district "magnet fairs" in coming weeks, Sundstrom said. She also said she'd be willing to meet with groups of parents. Just call, she said.
Across the bay, another high school is offering words of support for Largo.
Robinson High started an IB program in 2006. And when the Hillsborough district re-carved its IB attendance zones, parents in upscale South Tampa and Westchase were not happy. They had been in line to get their kids into the established IB programs at Hillsborough High and King High. Then they were locked into Robinson, a school without much of an academic reputation, across the street from an aging public housing complex.
Now, Robinson's IB program is 400 strong. Its FCAT and Advanced Placement scores are up. It has earned three B's in a row. And it's expecting to crack Newsweek's Top 100 high schools this year.
Robinson principal Laura Zavatkay said she understands why parents might be apprehensive about a new IB program. But she suspects Pinellas officials will be as diligent in ramping up Largo's IB as Hillsborough officials were about Robinson's.
"Give them a chance," she said.
Barry Driks, a former Westchase resident, was among those who were up in arms. He said Pinellas parents will probably end up feeling the way he did: pleasantly surprised. "The program was phenomenal," he said. "It was everything they promised."
Driks' daughter graduated with an IB diploma last year, as part of Robinson's first IB class. Now she's in college.