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Here's a checklist for choice information

Patricia Putman has a big choice to make.

Her son will be a kindergartener in fall 2003, when Pinellas County schools begin a choice plan. For decades, most new students enrolled in neighborhood schools. Choice signals the end of that practice.

Putman's family is moving to the Pinellas Point neighborhood of St. Petersburg. For choice, the district will be divided into four elementary school areas. St. Petersburg is attendance area A, so Putman can choose a school in area A or a countywide magnet or fundamental school.

"It's a little bit challenging when you don't already have your child in the school system," said Putman, 30.

Unlike families with students already enrolled in the district, families with new students won't get choice information mailed to them at home. They will have to seek it out.

The district advises parents to follow this checklist:

+ Visit one of two Family Education and Information Centers to learn about school offerings and how to apply. Applications will be available at family centers and public schools, though not until Sept. 16.

+ Visit schools, either for an open house or tour, this fall. Prepare a list of questions.

+ Get additional information from the district's Web site, The Web site includes brochures from every school, application time lines and other details about how the choice plan works.

+ Complete the application and return it by Dec. 13 to a family center. District officials want families to return the applications in person.

One parent, whose child attends private school, wrote the Times, saying she had heard that families new to the district were on the bottom of the "preferred list."

All applications will be given random numbers, so students already in the district get no advantage there. It's true that some students already enrolled in Pinellas schools might benefit from being able to finish their zoned schools or attend the same campus as an older sibling.

All applicants can try to qualify for a "proximity preference," which reserves 35 percent of available seats at every school for those who live nearby.

Putman has started her research already, relying mostly on newspaper coverage and her mom who works for the school district. She plans to visit several fundamental and magnet schools, as well as campuses in her neighborhood.

She has numerous questions to ask.

How often do the teachers turn over? What special programs does the school offer? How many students are in each classroom? How diverse is the student population? How does the school encourage parent involvement?

"The more parents become educated about (choice), the more educated they're going to become about the school their child attends," she said. "And that's a good thing."

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The Times has gotten a number of questions about how prekindergarten is affected by the beginning of school choice.

It's not.

Prekindergarten is not part of the choice plan. Enrollment to prekindergarten programs is through the early intervention or special education departments.

If your child has attended a pre-K program in a Pinellas public school, does he or she get any special privileges under the choice plan? No.

For instance, if your child attends pre-K at Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg, he or she does not have a guarantee to attend Perkins through fifth grade. Parents of children beginning kindergarten in 2003-2004 will have to fill out a choice application.

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Here's a refresher course on the "declaration of intent" form, which will be mailed to families of current students around Aug. 26.

If you're happy with your child's school and want him or her to stay there, indicate that choice on the declaration and return it in the postage-paid envelope.

Say your child wants to apply for a countywide magnet or fundamental program but would stay at his current school if he doesn't get accepted into a countywide program. There will be a spot on the declaration to indicate that choice.

Of course, a parent could also decide to give up his child's current school assignment and enter the choice plan.

The declaration forms are due Oct. 1.

Mark your calendar

AUG. 1: Applications for countywide magnet and fundamental programs are available in schools and Family Education and Information Centers, 3420 Eighth Ave. S in St. Petersburg and 1101 Marshall St. in Clearwater.

AUG. 26: District begins mailing "declaration of intent" forms.

SEPT. 16: Choice applications will be available in schools and family centers.

OCT. 1: "Declaration of intent" forms are due.

OCT. 15: Magnet and fundamental applications are due.

DEC. 13: Choice applications are due.

_ Send questions about choice to Kelly Ryan Gilmer, and please indicate whether your name can be used in the column. E-mail Write to the St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL, 33731. Or fax 893-8675.