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Students take turn on busing

Teachers have weighed in. So have parents, neighborhood groups and community associations.

On Thursday, a new group discussed the proposal to change school desegregation in Pinellas, a group representing those most affected by any changes: the students.

There was no consensus of the 50-member Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee, but a big concern among that group is that the district should do a better job making sure students can participate in school life.

To that end, group members said, the proposed plan is good because it reduces the number of students who have to be bused long distances for desegregation. For those students who still would have to attend schools far away, members said, the district should make it easier to join after-school activities.

Bused students currently find it hard to participate. "They don't care about the school as much," said Shelly Arnold, 17, of Osceola High School. "They can't be involved with the school."

Others said they were concerned that changing school zones would disrupt friendships because students would have to switch schools.

"They like the school they go to, but they don't like the ride," Kelly Chambers, 17, said of students she has talked to at her school, Osceola High in Seminole.

"They don't want a change now," said Melanie Lane, 17, a senior at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. "The change from school to school kind of messes kids up."

The committee comprises as many as three students from each of the district's 15 high schools and two technical schools. The group meets monthly to discuss issues of concern to students and carries its recommendations to the School Board.

Thursday was members' first chance to discuss a proposal by Superintendent Howard Hinesley to rewrite the district's desegregation plan. Committee members decided to return to their schools and collect more comment for a possible response in time for the School Board's scheduled Dec. 13 vote.

Hinesley has recommended changing the 30 percent cap on the number of black students who can attend each school. He wants to increase it to 40 percent in southern Pinellas schools and decrease it to 25 percent in schools north of Ulmerton Road.

The big issue for students wasn't ratios, it was after-school activities.

Some Pinellas students who are bused long distances for desegregation can't join in after-school activities because school buses pick them up only at the end of the school day. Other buses, called activities buses, pick up students after late sports practices. Students who aren't athletes would have to wait several hours after their meetings for those buses, and many don't.

"I do so much stuff at my school. I don't think I'd like my school at all if I couldn't stay after school and do stuff," said Glenda Burgess, 17, a senior at Countryside High School. "That's the time for students to really bond."

Greg Law, 17, a junior at Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, had another concern. Gibbs does not have as many computers and other technical equipment as other schools, he said. The library, he said, is smaller and doesn't have as much for students to work with. He wondered what could be done about it.

As students begin to grapple with issues raised by Hinesley's proposal, other school and community groups weigh in with requests for a further delay and support.

The school advisory council from the Bay Point School in St. Petersburg has voted unanimously to ask the School Board to delay its vote until April. SAC members will use the time to find out how the proposal will affect Bay Point, one of the district's magnet schools.

According to a letter to Hinesley from Chairman Manny Ramos, SAC members specifically want to know:

If the plan means more or fewer pupils for Bay Point.

If the proposal has, or should include, any exceptions for magnet schools.

If there will be less reason to support magnets if desegregation is not as high a priority.

The Oakhurst Shores Homeowners Association, however, supports Hinesley's recommendation to reduce busing. Oakhurst Shores is a subdivision on Boca Ciega Bay.

"Bringing the children closer to home means easier parental involvement and that means more motivation and better grades," reads a letter from association director Louis Frangipane.

The association, however, does not support delaying a change until education for poor children is more equal to that wealthier children receive.

"Those who say we should not change anything until certain educational goals are met are pie-in-the-sky advocates of a Utopian goal," Frangipane wrote. "You cannot mandate academic accomplishment!"