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Families get an education in school lottery

They are 10 words guaranteed to sink a parent's heart:

"Your child is No. 81 on the waiting list for . . ."

Last week thousands of parents closed their eyes, held their breath and opened their mailboxes to find the results of the lottery that selects students for the county's magnet and fundamental schools, public schools that offer special features.

For those who beat the odds, it was winning just as sure as if they had gotten lucky on a scratch-off game at the 7-Eleven.

For the majority, however, the letter arriving from Pinellas County schools brought a range of other conflicting and difficult emotions. Disappointment. Anger. Resignation. Confusion.

This year an unprecedented number of students tried for precious few slots. More than 9,000 applications were turned in for 2,154 openings in elementary, middle and high school programs across the county.

The true odds are actually a little less bleak because the application numbers are inflated by parents applying for several different schools at once.

Still, that is little comfort to those who find themselves on one or more waiting lists. With an April 1 decision deadline looming, they are left with the question: Now what?

"To me, 81, it may as well be 203," said Elizabeth Graziano. She had been sweating out The Letter, as it has come to be called, for more than a month. Her daughter, Amanda, enters kindergarten next fall. Graziano applied to Pasadena Fundamental School because she likes the idea of firm discipline, back-to-basics learning and required parent involvement.

"I really wanted it for her," Graziano said. Amanda is No. 81 on the waiting list.

Last year, only 21 students were taken off the waiting list to attend, said Michael Marckese, Pasadena's principal.

Graziano said she will leave Amanda in Westminster Presbyterian Day School for another year and try the lottery again next year. Mostly, she said she is sad that parents have to win a lottery to win what all children should have in a public education.

Marckese and other magnet and fundamental principals said they were bombarded last week by parents wanting to know what to do. Some were invited by their second or third choice but on a waiting list for their first. Others have plunked down non-refundable deposits at private schools and aren't sure whether they should give up a private school slot on the chance the waiting list for the magnet or fundamental school will move.

"We have no crystal ball," said Winifred Pfister, principal at Lakeview Fundamental School. "We try not to lead them astray, but we really don't know."

She said at her school 10 students were taken off the waiting list last year, and 16 have been selected so far this year. But those are combined numbers for all grades. In the past two years no kindergarteners moved off the waiting list.

At Bay Point Elementary, the math and science magnet, 187 pupils from the waiting list were invited to attend. But principal Charlie Eubanks cautions that those numbers are wildly inflated because of a crackdown on residency requirements. He said the year before, only 15 came off the list.

At Perkins Elementary, the arts and international studies magnet, 38 pupils have been pulled from the waiting list this school year.

The stakes for waiting are high for parents who can't afford private school and feel a magnet or fundamental school is their only shot at a top-quality education for their children. Many say they had never even given school choice a thought until it was their child facing it. Now it all but consumes them.

"I've literally had parents change their race on an application form based on what they think the odds are in getting in," Marckese said.

He claims to be living proof that the computer lottery can't be fixed. His daughter has been trying to get his grandchildren into his or any other fundamental school for four years and has failed each time.

"When I grew up you just went to your zoned school. There was no question. No worry," said Shelley Keller, Marckese's daughter. Times change. In the surrounding houses in her North Shore neighborhood, five families have their children in five different schools.

When her son, Alex, was entering kindergarten, she applied to the magnet and fundamental schools. He was not selected so she enrolled him in his zoned school, Woodlawn Elementary. The next year she tried again and failed.

When his sister, Alyson, was ready for kindergarten, she tried the lottery again. Alyson was selected for the Perkins Elementary magnet school, but Alex was not. Alex stayed at Woodlawn and went onto the Perkins waiting list for siblings.

This year, finally, both children are at Perkins. Yet Keller is worried. She again tried the lottery because she would prefer that her children be in a fundamental school. She figures it gives them a better shot of getting into a fundamental middle school.

"Alex is in the third grade and I'm already thinking about middle school," Keller said.

She said she always believed in the public school system. She even earned a degree in education. But she said, "When you have kids, it changes everything."

Lisa Williams knows only too well. She lived in the Perkins neighborhood, so her children were automatically zoned for the highly sought-after school.

Then she moved out of the zone, and her daughters, Rictavia, 9, and Rakeba, 7, lost their slots. They now attend Westgate Elementary but miss their teachers at Perkins.

"My daughters had teachers who cared about them even after they went home," Williams said. She applied for the lottery. Rictavia is No. 1 on the waiting list, and Rakeba is 23.

Williams worries about her daughters and said she has seen a definite change in her oldest daughter's attitude. She wants them back at Perkins.

Jean Passafaro's daughters also have relatively low lottery numbers for Perkins. But she isn't willing to risk a waiting list.

Her older daughter, Angela, has been attending Sunflower School, a private school. It has been a financial strain but worth it, she said. But now that her younger daughter, Christina, is starting kindergarten, there is no way she can afford two in private school. So, she, too, played the school lottery.

Last week she learned Angela was 45 on the waiting list for Pasadena and 23 for Perkins. Christina was 180 on the list for Pasadena and 27 for Perkins.

Passafaro said she will be home-schooling both girls next year rather than play the odds. It was a hard decision to give up Sunflower, she said, but financially necessary. Her zoned school, Bear Creek, was not an option because of a bad experience.

She is not completely sure she knows what she is getting into, but adds: "I will be guaranteeing a good environment."

Christine Lowry, supervisor of magnet and choice programs for Pinellas County schools, warns parents against panic if they did not get the school they want. She suggested giving their zoned school another, closer look. Often, the rumors they might have heard are untrue.

In Carol Barker's case, she would love to get her daughter into her neighborhood school. She is four houses away from Bay Vista fundamental school. Fundamental schools, unlike the magnets, do not draw pupils from the immediate area.

Barker's daughter, Amy, who starts kindergarten next fall, is 30th on the waiting list. Since Bay Vista is a new fundamental school, it is unknown how much that waiting list will move.

In the meantime, Barker will readjust her work schedule so she can drive Amy to her zoned school _ across the county to Sawgrass Lake Elementary. She said she does not want her 5-year-old on a bus 30 to 45 minutes twice a day. Already her other daughters are being bused around the county, each with completely different schedules: Cassie attends St. Petersburg High School, and Lori goes to Osceola Middle School.

Barker said she believes children should be near their homes. She said it helps keeps parents involved. She added she will try again next year.

"We do lousy on the Florida Lottery so I figured we would do lousy on this one too," she said, "I was really devastated."

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