CLEARWATER — Upset Pinellas County parents and students continued to passionately argue Tuesday night that one of the district's premier academic programs should not be moved from one high school to another.
At issue: a proposal by superintendent Julie Janssen to move the 567-student International Baccalaureate program at Palm Harbor University High, often touted as one of the best IB programs in the nation, to Countryside High.
Janssen says the move is necessary to alleviate overcrowding at Palm Harbor and free up hundreds of seats for students who can't get into the school even though they live in its zone. Critics, though, fear that the high-flying program will nosedive as it's phased out of one school and phased into the other.
"That program is an organism specific to its environment," IB junior Stephen Urchick, 16, said at a community forum attended by 300 people. "The plan you are proposing … is decimation and decapitation. This is something you can't replicate."
"We are the No. 2 program in all of North America," IB senior Courtney Clark said to raucous applause. "We feel like our feelings are not being listened to or appreciated by the School Board."
The forum in a packed Countryside High auditorium was the first of two on Janssen's sweeping plan to give more students across the district better access to top-notch academic programs. Everything from mandatory school uniforms to more fundamental school seats is in the mix.
But it was clear as soon as visitors rolled into the Countryside parking lot that the majority of people were there to protest just one piece of the plan: the IB move.
More than a dozen IB students from Palm Harbor waved signs along the street, while others gathered on the walkway to the auditorium. Scores of people wore navy blue T-shirts that said "IB Part of the PHUHS Family." Inside, the audience cheered speaker after speaker who slammed the IB proposal.
By the forum's designated ending time at 8:30 p.m., 20 people had said their piece, all opposed to the plan. At least eight others had signed up to speak but were not given a chance.
"They're not making it easy on us," School Board chairwoman Janet Clark said afterward.
Six of seven board members — all but Mary Brown — attended, along with Janssen, deputy superintendent Jim Madden and other top-ranking district officials. The board has scheduled an Oct. 28 workshop to consider input from Tuesday's meeting and the second one, which is set for tonight at Gibbs High.
At a board workshop last week, a majority of board members appeared to support the IB move. But Clark and member Peggy O'Shea said after they heard from Tuesday's crowd that they have not made up their minds.
"I want to hear everybody out," O'Shea said.
Does hearing 300 people say no make things harder? Yes and no, she said. "Yes, because you want to work with these 300 people," she said. "But you also have 104,000 students to think about."
Palm Harbor University High is so jam-packed with kids that it's operating with 39 portables. According to the district, 115 of the 567 students in the IB program live in the Palm Harbor University High zone. The rest live in other zones. Meanwhile, 295 students who are zoned for the school must go to school elsewhere.
Tuesday, not a single parent supported the IB move. No parents whose kids are blocked from Palm Harbor spoke. Nobody from Countryside spoke.
Instead, those opposed raised the same objections they put before Janssen at Palm Harbor last week and which can now be found on a Facebook page that has attracted 800 followers. They worry that IB course offerings will be limited while the program is phased into Countryside, that some IB teachers from Palm Harbor won't be transferred over and that the critical IB accreditation will be lost. They also say the district is simply transplanting the overcrowding problem from one school to another.
Among other options, they asked the district to leave the IB program at Palm Harbor and see how the addition of other magnet programs — such as another IB proposed for Largo High — eases the overcrowding.
"There are too many unknown variables that will affect the student population," said IB parent Kay Im. "Please wait and see before you dismantle a successful program, which would be irreversible once you do it."
Clark, the board chairwoman, said another parent asked why the district isn't setting up a second Center for Advanced Technologies — the academic powerhouse now housed at Lakewood High — in north county. She said that when she brought up that possibility at a board meeting Tuesday, ears perked up.
Clark also said she won't be influenced by the strong turnout at Tuesday's forum, but can be influenced by good arguments and valid options.
"And I heard a couple," she said.
Ron Matus can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8873.