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Other choices

Even with the array of specialized programs in public school, thousands of families make other choices: either private school, home school or partnership school. These schools vary in size, location, curriculum and philosophies. Here are some of your options.

PRIVATE SCHOOL

Although most of the county's students are educated in the public school system, there were an estimated 15,700 students, or 13 percent of the county's school-agechildren, who attended private schools during the 1996-97 school year. There are more than 100 private schools in Pinellas County. Although the state Department of Education does not set curriculum for the schools, it collects some data about the schools.

ARE PRIVATE SCHOOLS ALL ALIKE? No. The schools vary in curriculum, grade levels, discipline, class structure, size and dress code. Some are religion-based, which means students may be required to attend religious services or take religion classes. Others are secular. With some exceptions, parents are responsible for transportation.

HOW CAN I GET DETAILS? There is no state agency that regulates or licenses private schools or their teachers, so you will have to do the investigative work yourself. Check out the school's accreditation. There are religious and private associations that accredit some schools. Those accreditation standards vary. So it will be important to check out the accrediting agency. It's a good idea to find out whether the accrediting agency is approved by the Florida Association of Academic Nonpublic Schools, which accredits accrediting agencies. Also be sure to talk to friends, neighbors, relatives and other parents. Call the school and request a tour. Ask for test scores and written information about the school.

ADVANTAGES: Smaller classes and individual attention. Variety of educational philosophies. More stability because schools are not rezoned. Able to teach religious beliefs.

DISADVANTAGES: You pay tuition. Some of the schools are not regulated by any agencies. Not all of the teachers are certified. Sometimes the curriculum and activities are limited, despecially in smaller schools.

HOME EDUCATION PROGRAM:

Some students go to school at home and have their own parents as teachers. This system is known as home schooling and has been growing over the years. There are 1,614 families currently enrolled in the program.

Parents can use a variety of curricula. But teaching a child at home is demanding. It requires time and discipline of the parents, who are responsible for planning lessons and field trips, making sure their children are acquiring the appropriate skills and documenting their progress. Some parents home-school their children year-round, others follow the school district's calendar. But because there is a lot of flexibility with home schooling, vacation days can be taken at will and the school day can be as long (or as short) as the parents want.

Teachers do not have to be certified to home-school. In fact, experts say that students' success in the program has little to do with the parents' education or income level.

HOW DO I GET STARTED? Parents must file a letter with the school district, explaining that they intend to teach at home. The letter must include the name, address, birthdate and grade level of each child that will be enrolled in the Home Education Program. Copies of birth certificates must be included with the letter. If the parent is a state-certified teacher, then the certificate also should be submitted.

Information needs to be turned in to the school board 30 days before establishing the program.

IS THERE ANY OVERSIGHT? Yes. Parents have to keep a portfolio of their children's activities, and the district can request to see it at any time. Pinellas officials must give 15 days notice to view the portfolio, however. The portfolio should include, for example, a list of books that your child reads, papers they write, worksheets they complete, art they draw, movies they see, and places they go. Some parents also include pictures and souvenirs or make a video.

HOW DO I KNOW IF MY CHILD IS PROGRESSING? Each child must be evaluated annually, unless one of the parents is a state-certified teacher. In that case, no evaluation is necessary. The performance review can be conducted five ways. One, a certified teacher can submit a written report to the district after reviewing the portfolio and interviewing the student. Two, the pupil can take a national standardized test that is approved by the district and administered by a certified teacher. Three, a student can take a state student assessment test. Four, a psychologist with a current and valid license could assess the student. Or the parent and the district administrators can agree to another way to measure progress.

ADVANTAGES: Children would not have to attend separate schools. Curriculum is tailored. No transportation issues. Free to emphasize choice of moral and religious values. One-on-one instruction. Support groups available. Can set your own school calendar. Can move through lessons quicker.

DISADVANTAGES: No diploma is issued by the school district or the state. You must buy your own books and supplies. Teaching at home is a full-time commitment.

PARTNERSHIP SCHOOLS:

At certain locations, the school district brings the classroom to parents' place of employment. Instead of sending the children on a bus or dropping them off at school, parents actually take them to work. From there, the children go to their own classrooms.

The school district provides the furniture, materials and the teacher. The businesses furnish the space, utilities, maintenance and security. Students can participate in activities at nearby public schools and the district will provide transportation.

Currently, there are five partnership schools. To be eligible, parents must be employed by Bayfront Medical Center, Honeywell, Morton Plant and Mease hospitals and Pinellas County government (including the city of Clearwater). Modesta Robbins, which is associated with the Chi Chi Rodriguez Youth Foundation, also is a partnership site.

ADVANTAGES: No waiting at the bus stop. Before- and after-school day care programs. Same curriculum as other public schools. Student is near you during the day.

DISADVANTAGES: Usually, they offer only a few elementary grades, which means parents will have to look for another school.

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