Before Pinellas school officials succumb to public pressure to create more fundamental schools, they should examine the reasons behind the rising demand. With many parents, it is not a love of fundamental schools. It is dissatisfaction with discipline in their neighborhood schools and their determination to find a stable, safe educational environment for their children.
Applications for fundamental school seats in 2010-11 are up 23 percent. But only a fraction of those 8,450 students are going to get their choice because there are expected to be just 800 or so open seats. Applications are up at fundamental schools throughout the county, with most of the elementary school applications for kindergarten seats. The district should particularly focus on the parents of those incoming kindergartners to determine whether they had bad experiences with their older children in other elementary schools or are new to the school system and have concerns about their neighborhood schools.
Fundamental schools feature strict discipline codes, meat-and-potatoes academics and mandatory parental participation. The district does not provide bus service to these schools, a sound financial policy that still results in reinforcing a self-selection process. If the School Board keeps creating more fundamental seats to meet the demand without investigating what's driving that demand, the end result is clear: Families focused on education who are the backbone of successful schools would be concentrated in fundamental and magnet schools, and the remaining students would be left behind in neighborhood schools with little support.
Pinellas' approach to fundamental schools evolved over the years as their popularity increased. Under former superintendent Howard Hinesley, the district relied on fundamental and magnet schools to help desegregate the system and remained sensitive to the perception that fundamental schools create a private school setting within a public school system. Hinesley's successor, Clayton Wilcox, loosened those restrictions and the district converted under-enrolled Osceola High School in mid Pinellas into the county's first fundamental high school. Under new superintendent Julie Janssen last year, the School Board embarked on the greatest fundamental program expansion ever and created about 1,500 new seats. Now fundamental school advocates are pushing for a second fundamental high school in mid or North Pinellas and additional seats elsewhere. Where does it end?
The bright side of the increase in fundamental school applications is that it suggests many Pinellas parents are involved in their child's education and have not given up on the public school system. Now the school district needs to examine why those parents are not choosing their neighborhood schools. There is some merit to the view that the district should give its clients what they want. But all parents want safe, orderly schools. Instead of turning many more neighborhood schools into self-selecting fundamental schools, the district should broaden its focus and apply fundamental-like discipline to all schools.