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Parents push for neighborhood schools

They show up to help shape a developing student assignment plan to replace busing for desegregation.

The message was no surprise, and its delivery was loud and clear: Parents want neighborhood schools.

"It would be really hard if one child on a street goes to one school and another child goes to another," said Sandi Phillips, who has three children in public schools. "It's a comfort (for a child) to know, "I go to school with my buddy.' "

On Thursday night, more than 120 parents, teachers, principals and school advocates attended a meeting at Countryside High School. Superintendent Howard Hinesley invited the crowds for feedback on the student assignment plan the district is developing to replace court-ordered busing for desegregation.

Hinesley and other district officials in the audience got an earful.

Speakers complained that they don't understand why the district is changing the system and that they don't have enough information to provide input. Some said the district is not listening to parents; some urged the School Board to toss out the proposed "controlled choice" plan and start over.

"Are we going to be reimbursed for the extra money we paid to get into that attendance zone?" asked parent Matthew Sweadner, who lives near Plumb Elementary School. "Everyone wants neighborhood schools except six people who filed a lawsuit 30 years ago."

Thursday was the first of four meetings that Hinesley will hold with School Advisory Councils around the district.

The School Board also will hold three "listening sessions" to get feedback on the student assignment plan being developed.

In December, the School Board reached an agreement with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund to end three decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation.

As part of the agreement, the district will change the way it assigns students to schools, starting in 2003. While the agreement leaves details of the plan to the School Board, it sets up a framework for the new assignment plan.

Between 2003 and 2007, school assignment will no longer be based solely on a student's home address. The county will be divided into no more than four zones, and students will pick schools in their zone through a lottery. Some priority will be given to siblings, students with disabilities and some other groups; exactly to whom and how the priorities will be weighted has not been decided.

Each of the zones can have a black student population of no more than 39 percent and no less than 7 percent. Black student enrollment at each school will be capped, though it will rise from 37 to 42 percent. After 2007, the enrollment ratios could be lifted.

The agreement allows the School Board to create "proximity zones" around schools so that students will have a better chance of getting into their neighborhood schools. One key decision the board will make is whether to guarantee admission to some students _ say those within one-fourth mile of the school.

Thursday's meeting was for School Advisory Councils from the northern part of Pinellas County. The crowd was white, except for about six African-Americans. Thirty-two people spoke, with several speaking more than once. Only one black person spoke.

Hinesley stressed that no decisions have been made about the details of the new plan. He hoped that parents and students would use the public meetings to talk philosophically about school choice.

Some speakers provided useful input: Many suggested drawing ample "guaranteed attendance zones" around schools. That would please parents who bought homes to be near certain campuses. Some said the district shouldn't decide how the attendance zones are drawn, but leave that to the SACs.

Parents complained that if neighborhoods are not allowed to go to school together, community camaraderie, school volunteering and student achievement would decline. Parents grilled Hinesley on the plan's costs and whether similar choice plans have worked anywhere else.

"I am concerned about who would really be the watchdog for the school that is predominantly African-American," said Sara Mitchem-Baker, who has a seventh-grader at Safety Harbor Middle School.

Only two speakers saw hope in the choice plan the district is developing: A parent who didn't like her child's zoned elementary school and School Board member Nancy Bostock. "It transfers the decision-making power from the district to the parent," Bostock said. "If proximity is what you want, choose by proximity. If you want a phonics program, choose a phonics program."

Interested?

If you can't attend any of the public meetings about the school district's new student assignment plan, the district is soliciting input in other ways:

+ By phone (leave a recorded message): (727) 588-5181

+ By email: Maddenjpinellas.k12.fl.us

+ By mail: Choice Plan, c/o Pinellas County School District, P.O. Box 2942, Largo, FL, 33779-2942

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