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Pupils learn of luck in lottery

Letters were mailed this week to students who won seats in specialized schools or a place on a waiting list.

Every year, thousands of students are disappointed that they can't get into popular magnet and fundamental school programs.

This year is no exception.

The county's 23 specialized elementary, middle and high school programs drew 9,858 applications for about 3,600 slots. Students can apply to more than one program _ and many do _ so the actual number of students who sought admission is lower than the number of applications.

Letters were mailed this week to students who earned seats through the annual lottery and to those who ended up on waiting lists.

The district, in effect, has separate applications and lotteries for black students because officials are required to adhere to a federal court order to integrate schools.

Students have until March 1 to choose what program they will attend. Last year, the district received 10,129 applications. Why the decline?

Christine Lowry, who oversees special programs in the district, gave two reasons: Applications always jump in years that are "rotation years" (like 1999) when a new batch of elementary students is reassigned to schools away from home to meet federal desegregation requirements. Rather than be bused, some students apply to special programs.

And some parents, knowing the odds are pretty lousy, don't even try to apply.

:"Families realize it's very difficult to get in," Lowry said. "We get a lot of families who say, "Why bother?' "

Of the 3,600 or so openings, 792 were guaranteed to siblings of students already in the programs.

All of the programs are highly sought after, but some bear mentioning. Perkins Elementary's Center for the Arts and International Studies got 739 applications for only 107 openings _ and 32 of those slots were set aside for siblings.

"Perkins, honest to God, we could open another school," Lowry said. "That one always stands out by the sheer numbers."

The Center for Wellness and Medical Professions at Boca Ciega High School drew 121 black applicants for 19 slots. For non-black students, 371 students sought 143 seats.

The county's five fundamental elementary schools are also wildly popular, drawing 1,921 applications for 400 slots.

Those fundamental elementary students have a leg up when they move to fundamental middle schools, where they are guaranteed admission.

With the exception of Ridgecrest Elementary's Center for Gifted Studies, there are no academic admission criteria for elementary magnet programs.

There are no academic requirements to get into fundamental programs, either.

The requirements come at magnet programs for middle and high school students. At the Pinellas County Center for the Arts at Gibbs High School, for instance, students have to audition to get in.