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Amid these attractions, can balance be retained?

Consider the nifty ways that some public schools in Pinellas County will compete to attract parents under the new "controlled choice" program:

Skycrest Elementary in Clearwater has cast itself as "a school of the arts." That includes all arts, visual, performing, creative. Not every school has its own kiln.

Maximo Elementary in St. Petersburg offers a "microsociety," in which kids manage their own versions of community businesses, agencies and nonprofit organizations.

Mount Vernon Elementary in St. Petersburg has a far-reaching partnership with Raymond James & Associates that includes tutoring and mentoring.

Campbell Park Elementary in St. Petersburg has a Marine Sciences Center that allows kids to explore life in bodies of water from the oceans down to tiny ponds.

Those are just a few. There are dozens of good ideas. Every public school in the Pinellas system is supposed to develop a special "attractor" factor such as these.

The goal is to attract a student body of enough diversity, in each school by parents' choice, to maintain a racial balance.

That's the deal Pinellas made to get out of 30 years of court-ordered busing.

Will it work?

What if it doesn't?

Ah. That's the big enchilada, the mother of all questions.

Parents will start making their choices for the 2003-2004 school year this fall. Through 2007, Pinellas still will have overall guidelines for racial balance.

But after that, the pure free market will take over. The only limit on parental choice will be each school's capacity (some will have to take second or third choices).

For choice to work, enough families must choose a school other than their closest one.

Enough parents in predominantly black neighborhoods will have to be attracted to schools elsewhere.

Enough parents in predominantly white areas will have to be attracted to schools in predominantly black areas.

Otherwise, the system will re-segregate. Pinellas will end up back in court one day. We will listen once again to 1950s-style arguments about "separate but equal."

Yet there will be a modern twist. A half-century ago, the issue was whether the government could force minority children to attend segregated schools. The issue now will be whether parents of all races can legally resegregate by their own choice.

In other words, advocates of racial balance in schools, as a desirable social goal all by itself, just might find themselves opposed by both black and white parents who prefer neighborhood schools to lofty intangibles.

But, I am getting ahead of things. The very goal of our new "controlled choice" system is exactly to prevent this sort of thing. So we should give it a chance.

Hence the "attractors" in each school.

It has to be said that some schools did a better job than others of coming up with attractors. I listed a few of the coolest up above.

St. Petersburg High School is linking public service with learning, which seems like a good idea. Riviera Middle School has a partnership with Catalina Marketing Corp. Largo Middle stresses a demanding but rewarding set of conditions for family involvement.

Yet it is clear that several other schools barely lifted a finger. Many, if not most, came up with blah-blah "attractor statements" that sound like a reluctant homework assignment.

One of my favorites was the high school that offers "strong, academic and extracurricular activities." I certainly hope so. One middle school's attractor consisted of being "a positive and exciting place to be."

No, there was no new money to create these attractors. That is a bad way to get started. But then, some schools obviously made more of it than others. Some schools didn't know how to do better, and some of them didn't care to do better, didn't feel the urgency of attracting new faces at all.

However, this is not just bureaucratic bull. It is not just a two-paragraph homework assignment for principals. For the whole thing to work, the attractors have to be, well, attractive. Otherwise, it's back to the courthouse.

_ You can reach Howard Troxler at (727) 893-8505 or at troxlersptimes.com.

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