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First step: weighing your options

Now more than ever, picking a school for your child is more complicated than signing up at the nearest red brick schoolhouse.

It won't get easier, either. The debates over private school vouchers in Florida, and the gradual end of court-ordered busing in Pinellas, foreshadow even greater choice in the future.

Until then, though, parents already have a full menu of options. "School Search" is designed to help you choose the right one.

This guide isn't just for parents of kindergarteners. Newcomers, parents of children entering middle or high school, and parents unhappy with their children's current schools, also face decisions.

"School Search" won't rank schools. The best school for your child may be very different from your neighbor's top pick.

But we will show you the options: zoned, charter, fundamental and magnet schools in the public system; religious and non-religious private schools; and home schooling.

We will also provide snapshots of all Pinellas schools. Most important, we'll show you how to learn more on your own. No guide can replace the key to making the right choice: a school visit and a chat with the principal.

Start reading. The new school year doesn't begin until August, but the first deadlines are Feb. 1 to apply for special elementary and middle school programs. (For high school students, the deadline was Dec. 1, 1998.)

Public or private

Your first choice has to do with money and in some cases, religion.

If you pay property taxes, you're already paying for the Pinellas public schools.

But if you want a different experience for your child, in a religious or non-religious private school, you will pay again. In Pinellas, private school annual tuition can range from $2,100 _ for a church member in grades K-8 at Transfiguration Parish School in St. Petersburg _ to $9,000 for a high school student at Center Academy in Pinellas Park.

At most private schools, there is a religious connection, with some exceptions such as Shorecrest Preparatory Academy. Catholic schools usually require families to join the school's parish church and become contributing members. Those who do not will pay more tuition, as much as one-third more in some cases.

Parents with strong feelings about teaching religion alongside academics, or who are not satisfied with public or private options, can choose to home-school their children.

The common option

Public schools, however, are the far more common option.

Do nothing, and your child will be assigned to a school based on the attendance zone in which you live. Students usually are assigned to schools nearest them, with significant exceptions. To obey the desegregation order and maintain racial balance, some black and white students are bused to distant schools _ with a new batch of elementary students slated for changes this fall.

While they don't carry special labels such as "magnet" or "fundamental," many zoned schools have developed unique identities.

Madeira Beach Elementary focuses on marine science. Frontier Elementary in Largo has a technology theme, plus 30 extra school days each year.

Carwise Middle School in Palm Harbor uses a Total Quality Management system to track student achievement. And Clearwater High features the Program for International Culture and Commerce, a focus on international business.

The zoned school system includes changes for some elementary students every two years, at the start of each new rotation cycle. A new cycle begins this fall.

Every two years, the school district rotates which white students are bused to schools in predominantly black neighborhoods south of Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, in order to meet race ratios at each school. Then, black students are bused out of those neighborhoods to schools farther north in the county.

While the two-year rotations only affect white students, many more black students are bused for all 13 years. Each year, about 60 percent of black students are bused to meet race ratios in Pinellas, compared with about 5 percent of all white students.

This year is a rotation year. That means that those white students who have been bused to south Pinellas schools for the past two years will return to schools closer to home this fall, and other white students will be bused out to replace them.

Students who will be bused out to new schools this fall will receive letters from the district this month.

In autumn 2003, the district plans to replace the zone system with a yet-to-be-designed "choice" plan. (See next story.) Those plans, though, depend on approval from a federal judge. In any case, there will be at least two more two-year rotation cycles, including the one this fall.

To find out the zoned school for your child, or to check if the rotation affects you this year, call the district's pupil assignment office, at 588-6210.

When most parents think "choice," however, they think magnet programs and fundamental and charter schools. Of about 110,000 students in prekindergarten through 12th grade, about 10,000 attend these programs.

Magnets, most of which were established to draw white students into formerly all-black schools, are open to all students in the county at the elementary, middle and high school level.

Fundamental schools, which emphasize discipline, student responsibility and parental involvement, are also available to all students, but only at the elementary and middle school level.

Pinellas County has one charter school, Academie da Vinci in Dunedin, which focuses on the arts. Charter schools operate with public dollars but are free of many district and state regulations.

To get a seat at all three types of schools, students must enter a lottery. At the high school level, students also must meet certain academic or artistic criteria.

The odds of entry, though, aren't good. From about 9,000 applications each year, the district can accept only 2,500 to 3,000 students.

The district offers five fundamental elementary schools: Bay Vista, Lakeview and Pasadena in St. Petersburg, Curtis in Clearwater and Tarpon Springs Fundamental. Coachman Fundamental Middle is in Clearwater; Southside Fundamental Middle is in St. Petersburg.

Among magnets, elementary students can apply to programs that offer a focus on gifted learners (Ridgecrest); the arts (Perkins); science and technology (Bay Point); or communication and mass media (Melrose).

Perkins and Melrose students can continue those themes at Hopkins Middle; the science and technology theme continues at Bay Point Middle.

Mathematically talented middle school students can apply to special programs in science and math at Bay Point, Kennedy, Safety Harbor, Seminole, Southside Fundamental and Tyrone middle schools.

At the high school level, there are eight kinds of magnets, including the rigorous International Baccalaureate programs at St. Petersburg High and Palm Harbor University High.

The newest is the Academy for the Technical Arts, based at Gibbs High, which prepares students for careers in finance, business management and advanced information systems.

Beyond magnets, the district offers three career academies open to all county students at Dunedin High (architecture, design and construction); Northeast High (transportation); and Tarpon Springs High (agri-science).

Other options include partnership schools, for students whose parents work for one of six corporations that "partner" with the district; and challenge and discovery schools, which offer an alternative setting for elementary and middle school students who haven't succeeded in regular schools.

All students also can apply for a special attendance permit to any school in the district.

Getting started

General information about Pinellas schools, 588-6297

Newcomers information, 588-6297

Pupil assignment, 588-6210

Private schools, 850-414-1289 (state Department of Education)

Catholic schools, 345-3338

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