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Change to come slowly despite "choice' plan

It's a lot of work, choosing a school for your child. With so many changes looming for the public schools, how soon will you have to make a new round of decisions?

Relax. For most students, nothing will change for almost five years, or until your soon-to-be kindergartener is an almost-fourth-grader. That means that the way things are is the way things will be, for at least a while.

If your child enters a magnet or fundamental school, you won't be facing changes until they graduate from that school. And even at zoned schools, where most students attend, the changes will be difficult to notice for several years.

But it won't seem like that for the students who receive some special mail from the district this month.

About the third week of January, a new batch of white elementary students in St. Petersburg will receive letters from the school district notifying them that their zoned school will change for the next two years, beginning this fall. Instead of attending a nearby school, those students will be bused to one of six schools in predominantly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue.

Those students will replace the white students who spent the last two years at the schools south of Central Avenue, who will return to schools closer to their homes this fall.

That exchange is a district routine and it's been going on for years. It's called the two-year rotation cycle. While it only affects white students, black students still bear the brunt of busing in Pinellas.

Each year, about 60 percent of black students are bused out of their neighborhoods, compared with about 5 percent of white students, according to the district. Many black students are bused for all 13 years.

The district permanently buses those black students, and uses the two-year rotation for white students, to meet the requirements of a 28-year-old federal desegregation order, which limits the percentage of black students to 30 percent in any Pinellas school. It will occur this fall and at least one more time, in autumn 2000.

Despite the recent agreement to end busing for desegregation, the cycle will not end completely until autumn 2002, at the earliest.

That agreement, signed Dec. 15 by the School Board and attorneys for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, charts a nine-year course for ending busing for desegregation. A federal judge must approve the plan, which he is likely to do. If and when the judge approves the plan, little will change for the first five years, or until autumn 2003.

There is one notable exception:

The agreement eliminates required minimum percentages of black students at schools north of Ulmerton Road. That means that this fall, about 1,000 black students who live north of Ulmerton Road and now are bused to distant schools can choose to return to schools near their homes. Or, they can choose to continue attending the distant schools.

Otherwise, there will be only subtle change.

During the next five years, the district will gradually raise the limit on black students at schools south of Ulmerton Road, from 30 percent to 37 percent this fall, and eventually to 42 percent. That means that at schools where population changes push the percentage of black students past 30 percent (some schools are already over the mark), the district won't have to remove some black students and bus them to other schools.

It also means that this fall, and in autumn 2000, the rotation cycle will affect several hundred fewer white students. Usually, one cycle includes about 2,000 white students.

Under the agreement signed in December, the big changes will begin in a little less than five years, when the district begins a new school choice plan. That plan hasn't been developed yet, though it will follow the general guidelines of "controlled choice," a student assignment plan used by many school districts.

Beginning this month, the district will begin seeking suggestions from the community to develop the Pinellas version of controlled choice. The district has scheduled two years to put all the pieces together.

Under controlled choice, the district probably will be divided into three to five geographic zones. Students will enter a lottery to attend the preferred school in their zone. The district retains "control" by limiting the number of students of each race who attend.

But those are just the outlines. Many questions remain:

Students who live near schools or who have siblings already attending those schools will probably get priority, but how much priority? Schools that officials fear will be "underchosen" in a lottery will probably receive extra resources, but what kind? And where will that money come from?

Also, the district will have to fulfill a promise to build three new elementary schools and one new middle school south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, or make equivalent expansions to existing schools. Those seats will be needed to accommodate black students who choose to attend school closer to home under the new choice plan.

Parents will have a chance to help answer these questions. If you want to participate, contact the School Advisory Committee at your school and watch for meetings in your community.

After the choice plan is designed (1999-2001) and the district sets up the new system (2001-2003), then students will begin to feel the effects. If your child enters high school before autumn 2003, he will not be affected.

Younger students will.

Beginning in autumn 2003, new students, kindergarteners, sixth-graders and ninth-graders will be the first to choose a school under the new system. All other students will phase into the system year by year.

By autumn 2007, if the Legal Defense Fund agrees, the district will be allowed to remove the racial limits at schools. The choice system will continue without those limits.