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Middle Schools

In middle school, the rules are tougher, the work is harder and everything seems larger and moves faster. This is where the hustle and bustle begins. Your child is expected to change classes at least six times a day, stop by a locker, remember the combination to the lock, get to class on time and change clothes for physical education class. On top of all that, they will face (and some will succumb to) peer pressure, do their best to clear up the pimples and get used to new hygiene responsibilities. Even the schools are bigger, having an average of about 1,150 students, compared to an approximate average of 630 students in elementary school.

In addition to magnet and fundamental schools, the public school system offers an array of specialized programs offered for sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders.

Among the various public schools, the zoned schools are the most popular with middle school-aged students at about 84 percent. In the magnet programs, that figure is about 5 percent and almost as much, 4.7 percent, in fundamental schools.

ZONED SCHOOLS

WHAT ARE THEY?: In short, it's your assigned school. Unless you choose a private school, a public school offering a special program (we'll talk about that later) or a special attendance permit, 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. And they must avoid crowding or underpopulating any one school. To keep balanced and integrated school populations, some of the zones change periodically.

The district will provide transportation if the school it assigns you to is more than 2 miles from your house. Otherwise, students must provide their own transportation.

The curriculum among the zoned schools is similar.

WHAT IS MY ZONED SCHOOL?: Later this month, school district officials will send out the 1999-2000 school assignments by mail. Then they 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 . For each school, you can find out the student population, school hours, the name of the principal and a description of the zones. Also listed are the types of classes offered.

SEE FOR YOURSELF: It is always a good idea to take a tour. Another good source of information is word of mouth. Consider talking to parents who have or have had children at that school, neighbors and relatives. Try the Internet, too. You may get some good information by going to an open house or the school's PTA or school advisory council meetings.

ADVANTAGES: You are guaranteed a spot at the school. The district provides transportation if you live more than 2 miles from the school. For most, 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 ordinary zoned schools because magnet schools offer extras in the areas of arts, science and technology. 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 lure white students to schools that were predominantly black. District officials upgraded the curriculum to make the schools more appealing. There are two middle schools in Pinellas County that have magnet programs: Bay Point and John Hopkins. Space is limited and regulated by an application process. There are some students in the neighborhood who attend the magnet schools.

IF I AM NOT ZONED FOR A MAGNET, HOW DO I GET IN? If your child was in a magnet program during elementary school, then it is almost automatic admission into a magnet middle school. Otherwise, it will take pure luck. First, you must apply. Unlike elementary school magnets, there are admission requirements for some of the programs. Students must have a B average and have above-average state test scores to be admitted to Bay Point and some of the academic tracts at Hopkins.

Applications are due by Feb. 1. They 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 other students 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. There is a practice of 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 sixth grade rather than the other grade levels.

WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN THE MAGNET SCHOOLS? Bay Point is a science and technology magnet that could be considered an extension of the magnet program at Bay Point Elementary School. The middle school offers earth and life science activities and also gives students hands-on activities, including live animal observations and salt- and freshwater aquariums. During the last magnet enrollment period, there were 432 students who applied for 145 spaces.

John Hopkins is the county's first full magnet program, which means it offers three different concentrations of study. In the fine and performing arts program, the focus areas include visual arts, instrumental music, piano, theater and vocal music. The study of foreign languages and cultures also is offered in the arts strand. In the literary arts program, pupils are exposed to poetry, literature and creative writing. In the global studies program, students learn about social issues, conservation, the environment and other cultures. The middle school also has a communications program that includes, for example, public speaking and forensic classes. The school has a theater and arts complex and a multimedia network. For the 220 openings, administrators received 528 applications last year.

HOW DO I KNOW WHICH MAGNET SCHOOL IS FOR MY CHILD? This was a tougher call in grade school for a parent trying to gauge a 5-year-old's interests. But come middle school, a student's abilities and interests are becoming clearer. If math or science is fascinating, then consider Bay Point. John Hopkins also is an option for math and science in addition to fine arts, performing arts or communications.

ADVANTAGES: The magnet programs offer courses and activities that are not offered in traditional public middle 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 middle magnet program, getting into a high school magnet almost is automatic.

DISADVANTAGES: It is difficult to get in. Some 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 school 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. Parents 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. It was expanded to middle school in 1980.

There are two fundamental middle schools. Coachman is in Clearwater and Southside is in St. Petersburg.

HOW DO I GET IN? If you attended a fundamental elementary school, you are automatically enrolled in a fundamental middle school. Otherwise, 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. There is a separate lottery for black and non-black students because fundamental schools must be racially balanced. Last year, there were 536 applicants and space for 67 students. There were no openings available at Southside.

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 submit another application the following year. Once you are accepted to the school, you do not have to reapply. But you must submit a new application if you were excluded during the lottery process.

HOW ARE FUNDAMENTALS 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' disruption of learning. School officials follow strict rules of conduct.

The middle fundamental schools tend to push goal-setting, self-discipline and personal responsibility. There also is an emphasis on back-to-basics in the middle school. Fundamental middle schools' standardized test scores are among the highest in the district.

Because there is a mandatory parental participation policy, parents' failure to be involved can hurt the child. School officials will send children back to their zoned school 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.

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 attending PTA or school advisory council meetings.

ADVANTAGES: More stability because the schools are not rezoned. Plus, once accepted, few students leave. 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 students may have trouble with the rigidity of the classroom atmosphere.

OTHER PROGRAMS

AREN'T THERE OTHER ACADEMIC PROGRAMS IN MIDDLE SCHOOL? Yes. In addition to the magnet and fundamental schools, there are two other special programs that are available. Some are offered at the magnet and fundamental schools. They are the Mathematics Education for Gifted Secondary School Students, or MEGSSS, and the Integrated Mathematics and Science Technology, or IMAST.

The Mathematics Education for Gifted Secondary School Students (MEGSSS) is a math-only gifted program. Middle school students who successfully complete the program through eighth grade are given credit for two high school honors classes, algebra I and geometry. The district offered the first MEGSSS program in 1985. Now, there are four middle schools that offer the program: Bay Point, Kennedy in Clearwater, Safety Harbor and Seminole. Students must qualify for the gifted program and get a specific score on elementary achievement tests.

The Integrated Mathematics and Science Technology program is a science-only gifted program. IMAST is to science what MEGSSS is to math. Students learn about the scientific method, chemistry, physical science, graphic statistics and the life process. Research papers and science fair projects may be required. The IMAST classes are offered at Bay Point, Tyrone, Kennedy in Clearwater, Safety Harbor, Seminole and Southside Fundamental.

Satisfied? If so, then the decision-making process is over for you. Congratulations!

If not, keep reading, there are other choices available, either homeschool or private school.

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