Surrounded by choices, some Pinellas families just want the school down the street

Old Northeast families look to improve rather than avoid their zoned school, North Shore Elementary.
Published November 28 2015
Updated November 29 2015

ST. PETERSBURG — Marci Girard Emerson's neighbors along brick-paved 17th Avenue NE send their children to private schools and magnet programs: St. Raphael Catholic School, Shorecrest Prep, Canterbury School of Florida, Jamerson Elementary. Her backyard neighbors go to St. Paul's Catholic School. Another family hires a driver to chauffeur their children 19 miles to Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo.

All of them passed on North Shore Elementary, their zoned public school just five minutes away.

"Nine schools," Emerson said. "And no one in my immediate circle goes to North Shore."

The 90-year-old school near Coffee Pot Bayou has lost nearly 100 students in five years, part of a larger trend across Pinellas County that has seen enrollment in traditional neighborhood elementaries drop by more than 2,000 students while magnet, fundamental and charter schools continue to rise in popularity.

Hoping to push the pendulum the other way, Emerson and other parents — many with kids who won't enter kindergarten for two or more years — are determined to revive their neighborhood school, which currently has a D grade from the state.

They founded Friends of North Shore Elementary, which is crusading for the school to be the first choice for neighborhood families. They also created a Facebook group that has grown to 115 members, filed for nonprofit status and arranged for a tour of the school followed by a town hall meeting earlier this month with school staff and district and city officials.

"What we're realizing is it's not one family that can make a difference," Emerson said. "It's one family, one neighborhood."

• • •

In the Old Northeast, a historic neighborhood that celebrates its strong sense of community with porch parties and family-friendly holiday events, Emerson imagined her 3-year-old son riding his bike to school with friends. So did her neighbor, Laura Tillinghast Hine, a Friends of North Shore co-founder whose children are 4 and 1.

But as they prepared for elementary school, they found that a piece of community had been lost in a system that offers more than 70 "district application programs" around the county, not including charter schools.

"It turns out everyone else is asking the same questions," Hine said. "Why don't we all go to the same school? And what if we all did?"

Out of 534 students in the public system who are zoned for North Shore, only half attend the school. The majority attend district application programs or charter schools, with fundamental schools the prevailing choice.

Since 2011, charter school enrollment for elementary grades has more than doubled countywide, from 2,067 to 4,216. Magnet and fundamental elementary schools have gained about 700 students over the same period, and the district is talking about adding more magnets.

"Pinellas County has been in negative growth, or negative enrollment, for many, many years," said Bill Lawrence, a district director who keeps track of student assignment. "That would be reflected in the zoned schools primarily."

Families opt out of neighborhood schools for various reasons. Lawrence suggested that many may just live closer to a magnet school, a possible factor in northeast St. Petersburg. The area has long been surrounded by schools of choice as the district attempted to desegregate city schools.

For years, the district's marketing has been heavily geared toward application programs. But in a change this year, officials plan to promote zone schools with TV commercials and online, theater and radio ads — a move that may help efforts like the one at North Shore.

A similar effort is under way at nearby Shore Acres Elementary, where some parents are trying to address a concern they say is keeping many neighborhood families away: the lack of good middle school choices.

Many of them choose elementary magnets or fundamentals because they are feeders to middle schools with similar programs, and the elementary families get priority enrollment.

That has an impact, says Shore Acres parent Elizabeth Blanco. Her school has seen one of the steepest enrollment declines in the district, losing 165 students since 2011.

Seeking to end the flight, Blanco recently submitted a proposal asking superintendent Mike Grego to allow families in neighborhood elementaries equal access to a fundamental middle school if they meet certain requirements.

Lawrence said one way to boost neighborhood schools could be to add voluntary pre-K classes, although he added that space can be an issue. Still, he said, such programs build familiarity with a school, prompting families to stay.

As for why some parents are suddenly rallying around their zoned schools: "Maybe some people are just saying 'All of this hubbub of school choice is just stressing me out,' I can't tell you how many parents tell me that," Lawrence said.

"Maybe the pendulum is swinging so families can have a simpler life."

• • •

A poster in North Shore's media center listed four categories: Why I Would Go. Why I Would Not Go. Questions. How I Can Help.

Fifty families who attended the town hall meeting this month could anonymously give their answers using Post-it notes.

Why would they not go? The reasons outnumbered the notes in the other categories. "Reputation," "academic scores," "school rating," "lack of middle school options," "no 'attractor,' " "unattractive" grounds.

A panel that included School Board vice chairwoman Terry Krassner, North Shore parent Brandy O'Neill and district official Mary Beth Corace addressed concerns.

North Shore's D rating "doesn't paint a whole picture," said Corace, the district's director of strategic planning and policy. She noted that the school was just 27 points away from a C.

North Shore principal Cooper Dawson explained that she is trying to bridge the achievement gap between black and nonblack students, as well as curb discipline referrals.

"When I first got to North Shore, I thought, 'This is a hidden gem. Why aren't more people here?'" Dawson said. "If we're an A school, this community increases in value and it's a win-win for all of us."

One by one, the panelists answered questions about testing, teacher autonomy, parental involvement, middle school options and other topics.

"Take a deep breath," O'Neill told fellow parents. "Don't base your decision on an elementary school just because you're looking for a middle school. … "You'll cross that bridge when you get there."

Kari Rood, a 36-year-old biologist, said North Shore could be an option for her 4-year-old and 1-year-old if her oldest doesn't get into a magnet school. But she worried that the school may have a long way to go.

"I don't think it'll happen in time for my children," Rood said.

Along with many prospective parents, the town hall audience included a big showing from district headquarters. In addition to Krassner and Corace, the contingent included School Board chairwoman Peggy O'Shea, area superintendent Pat Wright, associate superintendent Clint Herbic and district spokeswoman Lisa Wolf.

"When potential parents take such an active interest in the schools, that's very encouraging to us," Wolf explained. "This is kind of what we hope to see at all of our schools."

Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.

   
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