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Survey counts schools with too many kids

A Pinellas study may be used to shift enrollment from popular schools to those with empty seats.

For years, Florida parents have complained about portable classrooms. The issue took on such urgency in 1997 that the Legislature went into special session to find more money for school construction.

Despite the concerns, portable classrooms haven't stopped parents from moving close to some of Pinellas County's most popular schools. In fact, the influx of parents to the attendance zones around schools such as Palm Harbor University High School and Clearwater's Frontier Elementary has forced an explosion of portables on those campuses.

"We recognize we're not offering the best educational opportunities when you have kids outside in portables," said Frontier principal Marlyn Dennison. "But we also recognize that it's hard to turn away kids."

Dennison's school has six portables to house kids whose parents wanted them to experience Frontier's popular extended-year calendar and technology focus.

Getting kids to move from popular schools ultimately might be the result of a survey just completed by the Pinellas School District. The district is trying to figure out which schools have too many kids, and which are too roomy.

The study comes as the district is developing a student assignment plan for the years after court-enforced busing ends. And while the stated goal of the study is to reduce the number of portable classrooms by distributing students more equally, the study is also bound to become an important part of the new student assignment plan that will begin in 2003.

"This gives us an opportunity to look at the whole district, not just school by school," said James Scaggs, an attorney for the school district.

Right now, most students are assigned to schools based on their home address. If a student can prove he lives in the zone for Palm Harbor University High, for example, the district must find a way for him to fit.

Thus, two dozen portables surround the nearly brand-new, popular high school.

Because of a federal court order, some students, most of them black, are bused out of their attendance zone to predominantly white areas to achieve desegregation.

But last month, the Pinellas School Board approved a settlement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end court-ordered busing. While the settlement still must be approved by a federal judge, it provides a framework for the assignment system that will replace busing.

For one thing, the district must develop a single assignment plan _ one that applies to all students, black and white, south and north county.

Starting in 2003, school assignment will not be based solely on home address. The county will be divided into no more than four zones, and students will pick schools in their zone through a lottery.

Under this system, the percentage of black students at any school will be capped, but the limit will increase from 37 percent to 42 percent. After 2007, the School Board could lift those limits.

Students who live near a certain school will have a better chance of getting in than those who don't. How near the school? How much better a chance? School Board members haven't decided. Some priority also will be given to siblings and students with disabilities; how high a priority has not been decided.

With so many complicated issues on the table, the district is starting from scratch. The slate is clean, with no preconceived notions about keeping dozens of portables at popular schools just because they have always been there.

The first question: How many students really fit at each school _ without portables? Answering the question required a study, which will be used as the framework for a district master plan and evaluation of where specialized programs are located.

The district's pupil assignment staff has spent nearly two years studying the types of programs and number of classrooms at each school. They considered the number of restrooms and how many students the cafeteria could feed.

What they found was that across the county, they shouldn't need any portable classrooms in middle schools or high schools to accommodate the number of enrolled students. Nonetheless, some schools have empty seats, while nearby schools are brimming with students in portables.

That's the case at Countryside High School, which could take in at least 700 students, but nearby Palm Harbor University High is squeezing students into portables.

"Why would you allow Palm Harbor to be so large through the use of portables, when you have two or three surrounding schools that have empty seats?" said Marlene Mueller, director of pupil assignment. "You don't have to wait until choice to ask that question. You can ask it now."

At the elementary level, even with work being done on new and renovated facilities, the district would need about 2,000 more seats to fit every student in a permanent classroom. Based on that estimate, the district would still need about 80 portables for elementary classrooms, Mueller said.

While that means portable classrooms could be reduced at all levels, that doesn't mean portables will be eliminated altogether. As of this week, the district has 534 portables used to relieve overcrowding.

"You're going to automatically reduce the number of portables needed just by the fact that you can control the number of kids who walk through the front door," Mueller said.

District officials say the best way to decide where portables should go is to have a uniform policy. That starts by dividing the county into zones and determining whether there is a space shortage.

One zone, for instance, may need 200 elementary school seats. Rather than putting the portables where the schools have been popular in the past, the district would first analyze which cafeterias and site plans could accommodate a portable.

Then, portables would be "strategically" distributed to those schools.

Ultimately, all details of the new student assignment plan are up to the School Board. The board will have to approve this approach to defining school capacity and make decisions about related issues, such as "grandfathering."

If under the new plan, students who attend a particular school are allowed to finish at that school, the only "control" the district will have on limiting admission will be in the incoming class. So, for a few years, certain schools could remain crowded and require portables.

How will this new definition of school capacity help the district's efforts to promote racial diversity?

Superintendent Howard Hinesley is not sure it will.

Ratios will still be in place through 2007, limiting the number of black students at each school. And after that, officials predict that parents will choose convenient neighborhood schools; in a county where most black and white people live apart, that won't mean integrated schools.

"What I think it will do is better use the space and relieve overcrowding," Hinesley said.

What this portable strategy could do, said NAACP Legal Defense Fund attorney Enrique Escarraz, is to encourage schools that aren't as widely selected to work harder to attract students. As part of the Legal Defense Fund's agreement with the school district, defense fund attorneys can participate in the discussions about the new pupil assignment plan.

"The idea of a controlled choice plan is to get away from just adding to the capacity of popular schools and shunt unwanted programs to the unwanted schools," Escarraz said. "Trying to have a reasonable strategy for the placement of portables should help to improve schools generally, which is part of what we want."

School Board members acknowledge that the decision is a complicated one, and they want advice from parents.

Principals will be presented with the school capacity figures next week. Over the next three weeks, district officials will meet with School Advisory Councils and parents to get comments on their plans.

Where the students are _ and are not

Pinellas school officials have just completed a survey to determine where students are unevenly distributed. They found that some schools are serving far too many students, while others have space available. Here a few of the most dramatic examples of each:

OVER CAPACITY

Official Total Difference

enrollment capacity

program

Palm Harbor Univ. High 2163 1570 + 593

Boca Ciega High 2107 1669 + 438

John Hopkins Middle 1532 1255 + 277

Meadowlawn Middle 1218 980 + 238

Tyrone Middle 1120 889 + 231

Pinellas Central Elementary 923 482 + 441

Bauder Elementary 973 588 + 385

Under capacity

Countryside High 1859 2632 - 773

Northeast High 2021 2655 - 634

Fitzgerald Middle 1052 1543 - 491

Clearwater Discovery 334 743 - 409

Perkins Elementary 532 743 - 211

Bay Vista Elementary 545 753 - 208

Note: Enrollment number is as of 9/99

Source: Pinellas County Schools

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