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Elementary Schools

Elementary school is a whole new world for preschoolers and parents. Picture day. Bus rides. Walks to a separate building for lunch and assemblies. It's new in other ways, too. Children have their first report cards and their first standardized tests. During elementary school, students lay the foundations for their education, learning much more than reading, writing and arithmetic.

PUBLIC: There are three basic types: zoned, fundamental and magnet. Most elementary-aged children in public schools _ about 91 percent _ attend a zoned school, the one chosen for them by the school district. It is not necessarily the one closest to home. By lottery, some children get into the fundamental and magnet schools. (More on that in a bit.) Enrollment in those schools accounts for about 4 percent of the elementary school students in the Pinellas system, respectively. Amid all the schools, there is variety. Some require applications, uniforms or weekly volunteering commitments from parents. Some have special themes. First, let's start with the zoned school.

ZONED SCHOOLS

WHAT ARE THEY?: This is sort of a nickname for the system that the district uses to assign students to schools. District officials draw boundaries around neighborhoods, creating a zone. Students living in those zones are assigned to a particular school, in part, to maintain racial ratios required by a federal court order. In other words, your zoned school might not be the one closest to your home. Unless you choose a private school or a public school offering a special program (we'll talk about that later), the district chooses the school for you.

The zones are created based on population and race. District officials have to make sure that schools are integrated. In addition, they have to avoid crowding or underpopulating any one school. In order to keep a balanced and integrated school population, some of the zones change.

If your zoned school is more than 2 miles from your house, the district will provide a bus. Otherwise, students must provide their own transportation.

Although there is a common curriculum among the zoned schools, there also are special features, including swim classes as part of physical education class, a foster grandparent program, schoolwide computer networks, writing programs and "looping," where the same teacher stays with students for three years.

WHAT IS MY ZONED SCHOOL?

Later this month, school district officials will mail the 1999-2000 school assignments. Some students may be surprised. The district could assign some students to a different elementary school. That's because the district's desegregation plan involves busing groups of white students to schools that would otherwise be largely black. The two-year reassignment rotates among different neighborhoods. The 1999-2000 school years marks the beginning of the next rotation. Black students are bused, also. But their assignment is permanent. In some cases, they never get a chance to attend a neighborhood school.

After the letters go out, administrators will hold three public meetings: one in north county, one in south county and one in mid-county. The letter will have details about when and where the meetings will be. In February, the School Board will hold two public hearings and officially make the changes.

I WANT TO KNOW MORE:

Start on page 4. For each school, you can find out the student population, school hours, the name of the principal, a few particulars about the school and a description of the current zone. (Remember some of these will change later this month!) You can also see results of scores all public school students take: the CTBS, the FCAT and Florida Writes tests. If you want to compare that school's scores to others, turn to page where we list the scores, school by school.

SEE FOR YOURSELF:

Take a tour. Nothing can take the place of seeing for yourself. Talk to other parents, neighbors and relatives. Try the Internet, too. Also consider going to an open house or the school's PTA or School Advisory Council meeting. What should you look for on a tour? See page 8 for a guide to taking a tour.

ADVANTAGES

You are guaranteed a spot at the school. The district provides transportation if you live more than 2 miles from the school. For many, the school is relatively close to home. Students with special needs and interests are accommodated. The curriculum is comparable to others in the state. There is a family like atmosphere at some of the smaller schools.

DISADVANTAGES

School assignments can change. If you move to a different zone, your assignment is sure to change, even during the middle of the year. However, staying put is not a safeguard because the boundaries are periodically redrawn.

MAGNET SCHOOLS

WHAT ARE THEY? They could be considered deluxe versions of zoned schools because magnet schools offer extras in the areas of arts, science, technology and communications. There also is a curriculum for the gifted. For example, the arts-intensive programs feature painting, music and dance. Other magnets may have elaborate computer labs and multimedia networks. Students still get a traditional education. The school day is split between regular academics and the special program.

Magnet schools originally were designed to attract white students to schools in predominantly black zones. District officials upgraded the curriculum to make the schools more appealing. There are four elementary schools in Pinellas County that have magnet programs: Bay Point, Melrose, Perkins and Ridgecrest, which is in Largo. Space is limited and regulated by an application process. Some students in the neighborhood get to attend the magnet schools as their zoned school.

HOW DO I GET IN?

Pure luck _ unless you live near the school and are zoned for it. First, you must apply. Other than an interest in the areas of learning, there are no admission requirements for the elementary magnets, except for Ridgecrest Elementary in Largo where children must have an IQ of 130 or higher and teacher recommendations.

But at all four schools, you must turn in the applications by Feb. 1. They either can be hand-delivered or mailed. It is always a good idea to follow up with a phone call to make sure the school has received your application.

Then it's up to a computer, which assigns a random number to each application and arbitrarily selects students. Race is a factor in the selection process. There is a separate lottery for black students and students who aren't black because magnet schools must be racially balanced.

But once you are accepted into a magnet program, there is no more lottery for you. As long as your child meets the academic performance and behavior guidelines, your child is locked into the magnet system, even through middle and high school. There is nepotism in the magnet system. Siblings are given preference in admissions decisions. If, however, you do not get in, there is a waiting list. Vacancies are filled from that list. Applying early does nothing to boost the chances of acceptance.

Although there are no guarantees to get your child into the magnet system, it usually is easier to get in when applying to the kindergarten class than the other elementary grade levels.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE AMONG MAGNETS? Bay Point emphasizes science, mathematics, technology and daily Spanish lessons. There are computers in each classroom and students can access their own weather station. The school is known for its hands-on learning, including live animal observations and aquariums. For the current school year, administrators received 540 applications for 61 spaces at Bay Point.

Perkins features arts and international studies. It also has computers in every classroom. Because students learn about other cultures through the arts, the curriculum is considered multicultural. Spanish is taught every day to every student. The school day is split between regular academics and the arts and foreign languages. Kindergarteners through third-graders take classes in all areas; after that, students choose an area of concentration. For the 1998-99 school year, there were 710 applicants for 63 openings.

Melrose is the district's newest magnet school, offering communication and mass media as its specialty. The federal government is helping pay the bill for the program's first three years. Students study digital arts and technology. This is the first year for applications. There will be only a few openings.

Ridgecrest in Largo is the site of the magnet program for gifted children. Students receive one-on-one instruction and are encouraged to work at their own pace. Teachers give them real-world problems to solve, such as designing homes that are energy-efficient. The classes also prepare students for similar programs in middle and high school. Unlike the other three schools, there are state-level admission requirements for Ridgecrest because it serves gifted students. Parents or teachers who think a student may be eligible for the program notify district administrators, who decide whether to order an IQ test. The exam is free, unless parents use a private psychologist. There are students who do not score high enough on the IQ exam but are admitted anyway. They must show potential for success in the program. Ridgecrest drew 116 candidates for 82 openings.

WHICH MAGNET IS RIGHT FOR MY CHILD? Talk to your child about his or her interests. If math or science fascinates them, then consider Bay Point. If fine arts or performing arts seems appealing, then consider Perkins. Also consider your child's strengths and weaknesses when selecting a program. But the best way is to see for yourself. Take a tour. For tips, see story, page XX.

ADVANTAGES: The magnet programs offer courses and activities that are not offered in traditional public elementary schools. The district provides transportation. Few children leave the program after being accepted, which creates stability. Also, the school is excluded from the district's rezoning process so boundary changes do not apply. For those who complete the elementary magnet program, there is a guaranteed spot in magnet programs in middle and high schools.

DISADVANTAGES: It is difficult to get in. All students may not be able to meet the high expectations for performance and behavior.

FUNDAMENTAL SCHOOLS

WHAT ARE THEY? Fundamental schools have the same curriculum as traditional public schools, but fundamental schools have stricter rules for students and parents. Students must meet higher standards for homework, dress and behavior than traditional schools. Parents are required to attend PTA meetings, participate in parent-teacher conferences and review homework and sign it. They even sign a contract, promising to do these things and be responsible for their child's transportation to and from school.

The fundamental discipline was the first non-zoned specialty program in Pinellas County. It began at the elementary level in 1976.

There are five fundamental elementary schools: Bay Vista, Lakeview and Pasadena in St. Petersburg; Curtis Elementary in Clearwater; and Tarpon Springs Elementary.

HOW DO I GET IN? Like the magnet programs, there is an application process and a lottery. Applications are available from each school beginning Jan. 15. They are due Feb. 1. There are no admission requirements, except to abide by the school's rules. A computer randomly selects students. Race is a factor in the selection process. There is a separate lottery for black students and other students because fundamental schools also must be racially balanced. For the school year that began in August, 2,029 students applied for fundamental schools. Among the five schools, there were 264 openings.

Those who are not chosen in the lottery are put on a waiting list for one year. If a space opens during the school year, then a student is offered a chance to transfer. Otherwise, you will have to reapply the next year. Once you are accepted to the school, you do not have to re-apply.

HOW ARE FUNDAMENTAL SCHOOLS DIFFERENT? Succeeding at the school is based on discipline -- for the parents and the children. There is a focus on time management, so that leaves no tolerance for students who disrupt learning. School officials follow strict rules of conduct.

The measure of achievement starts sooner than at traditional zoned schools. Pupils at fundamental schools begin receiving letter grades (A, B, C, D, F) in the first grade, as opposed to the third grade in traditional schools. Although there are no specialized academic tracks as in the magnet schools, fundamental schools have historically ranked high among student achievement on standardized tests.

Parents' failure to be involved can hurt the child. School officials will send children back to their zoned schools if students or parents fail to keep their end of the bargain. In most cases when students are excused from a fundamental school, it is because of the parents, who may have missed too many PTA meetings, didn't attend parent-teacher conferences or failed to check the child's homework.

WHAT'S THE BEST WAY TO FIND OUT MORE? Take a tour. Nothing can take the place of seeing for yourself. Talk to other parents, neighbors and relatives. Try the Internet, too. Also, consider going to open house or the school's PTA or School Advisory Council meeting. For tips on how to take a tour, see story, page 8.

ADVANTAGES: More stability because the schools are not rezoned. Plus, once accepted, few students leave. More continuity because students are automatically accepted into fundamental middle school. Siblings are automatically admitted as space becomes available.

DISADVANTAGES: Hard to enroll. Parents have to provide own transportation. Complying with the attendance demands at various meetings can be difficult for parents. Some children may have trouble with the rigidity of the classroom atmosphere. There are no fundamental high schools.

If you're satisfied with one of these, then the decision-making process is over for you. Congratulations!

If not, keep reading. There are more options available.

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