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Wary of competition, Pinellas school system offers new programs and considers opening more

Richard Litzenberger has a nickname for those few days in January when parents vie for open seats in Pinellas County's most coveted public schools. He calls it "open season."

The big game, in his mind, is a fundamental school.

Litzenberger hasn't succeeded in past years in getting his son, now a sixth-grader, into a fundamental. But that won't stop him from trying again when the district starts accepting applications from Jan. 8-17 to its special programs. He doesn't see another choice.

"Why is it that there are so few of these schools that are so good?" he asked.

That perception, true or not, has dogged Pinellas County Schools. For many parents, the top choice is a fundamental or one of a few coveted magnet schools. If they don't get a seat, they'll take their business to private or charter schools — hitting the school district's bottom line.

Superintendent Mike Grego, in a little more than a year at the helm, has pushed aggressively to expand educational opportunities, in part to woo back parents who have left the school system. Enrollment has been declining in Pinellas for more than a decade, while charter schools have grown.

"I believe as a public school system we ought to compete," Grego said.

For the 2014-15 school year, the district has introduced four new middle school programs, and the School Board so far has been supportive of a proposal to reopen two closed schools as technology magnets. One of those schools, Gulf Beaches Elementary, is on the barrier islands, where parents and public officials recently spoke in favor of a proposed Montessori charter school.

District officials also are looking at introducing or expanding programs that have been popular nationwide, such as the pre-Cambridge program for middle schools and the International Baccalaureate program for elementary and middle grades. Both are considered rigorous academic models with a global flavor.

The IB program already has been successful at Sanderlin K-8 in St. Petersburg, while the pre-Cambridge program is being introduced next year at Pinellas Park and Tarpon Springs middle schools.

"We're looking at a lot of things. Nothing's off the table," Grego said.

To locate new programs, Grego said his staff has been studying the number and location of charter and private schools as well as which areas of the school district have the longest waiting lists for special programs. The district also has been reviewing magnet programs that aren't doing the job of attracting students from outside the neighborhood. Parent surveys also are in the works, he said.

"It will tell us about where we are," he said.

The introduction of new programs — and the possibility of two new schools — could shake up the district's lottery system. It's notoriously difficult to get into the county's most popular schools, particularly fundamentals, which give students priority admission in the later grades if they had a seat in the lower grades.

For instance, more than 1,100 students applied last year to Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle, but only 226 were offered a spot. At Perkins Elementary, which has an arts theme, more than 1,300 students applied and 111 were invited to enroll.

The four new middle school programs will open seats at all three grade levels, potentially drawing students away from the more popular selections.

"These programs are going to have a significant number of seats," said Bill Lawrence, the district's director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity. "These are going to be good second choices or first choices."

If the School Board gives the official go-ahead to open the two new elementary technology magnets, that application period will occur later in the year, giving parents a rare second opportunity to pick something other than their neighborhood school.

The question remains, though, whether the new offerings will draw families. It often takes a few years for a new program to gain traction, and it can be a tough sell at a school with a less-than-stellar reputation.

Litzenberger enrolled his son at a charter school last year after failing to get a spot in a fundamental. He said he wouldn't consider the new engineering program at Azalea Middle because of concerns about behavior problems. The school had one of the highest rates for out-of-school suspensions in the district last year.

School officials have tried to address those issues. Azalea Middle introduced a new behavior plan this year and a recent state report said 80 percent of students were meeting or exceeding behavior expectations. But reputations don't change overnight.

"Now if you told me Thurgood Marshall (had seats available), I would be over there in five minutes," Litzenberger said.

Despite clamoring from parents, Grego said he doesn't have immediate plans to open new fundamental schools. He said he would prefer to expand other educational offerings, particularly in areas where the district needs more open seats.

"Without vacant seats, you don't really have choice," he said.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8846. Follow @Fitz_ly on Twitter.

Wary of competition, Pinellas school system offers new programs and considers opening more 12/24/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, December 24, 2013 10:02pm]
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