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Wednesday is program decision day

The next choice deadline is almost upon us.

Wednesday is the deadline for accepting a spot in a magnet program, fundamental school or career academy. I've been flooded with questions about these programs, the waiting lists and the ramifications for making certain decisions.

I'll try to cover as many as I can.

Q: Can you fill out a choice application after accepting a magnet spot just to try out your chances in the choice lottery?

A: You can, but you'll lose your magnet seat. The general rule is that the last form returned to the school district is the one that counts. So, if you want to keep your magnet seat, don't submit any other applications after accepting it.

Q: Why does the district maintain two waiting lists, one designated "black" and one "nonblack"?

A: The district is still under a federal court order that requires racial diversity in schools. So, as a black student leaves a program, the black waiting list moves. As a nonblack student leaves a program, that list moves.

Q: How can you tell whether you have a good waiting list number?

A: Generally, if you're up in the hundreds somewhere, your chance of getting into a program is remote. But I'd never say never. It's difficult to predict because a good number one year could be a crummy number the next year. It depends on several factors, such as the choices other students make and the school's capacity.

Q: How long are waiting lists maintained? How will you find out if your number has been called? Will it start moving immediately after Nov. 20, when students accept or decline spots?

A: Elementary and middle school lists are good for one school year (in this case, 2003-2004). The high school lists end on the 11th day of the second semester.

You will find out if your number is up because the school will call you. Parents won't have much time to make a decision. The list won't move until Dec. 2, the first day schools are allowed to go into their waiting lists. The lists will move quickly after that date and then slow down. They tend to move again in the summer. Typically, they don't move much after that.

Q: Do you have to do anything to stay on a waiting list?

A: No. The magnet notification letter only requires a reply if you're accepting an invitation into a program. You can stay on waiting lists until they expire or you accept a spot in one of the programs.

Q: If you're new to the district, how do you officially register with the district once you've accepted a magnet spot?

A: All students new to the district _ that includes incoming kindergarteners, those entering from private school or home school, and former students who became inactive _ must visit a family center to fill out some paperwork. The district would love students to do this as soon as they accept an invitation into one of these programs.

Bring with you the student's invitation letter, the student's original birth certificate and a proof of residency. If the student is entering grades 1 through 12, bring along the student's most recent report card.

Q: If you're currently in a magnet or a fundamental program, do you still need to send in your declaration of intent?

A: Yes, by Dec. 13. All students currently in the school district, whether in a neighborhood school or a special program, must tell the district if they want to keep their current school assignment. The easiest way to do that is to return a declaration in the mail.

I told you the district would be sending out a letter in mid-November that will confirm the choices you have made. That's still the plan, but the letters won't be mailed until the middle of this week. So, sit tight. You haven't missed anything yet.

As of last week, the district had received more than 78,000 declaration of intent forms. The district sent out 103,000, so that leaves about 25,000 floating around the county.

School administrators have been using this data to pester parents of current students to return the declarations. They're worried that parents might forget, and then their children will suffer. If you don't turn in a form, the district will pick a school for your child after all other applicants are placed. The deadline is Dec. 13. That's only 26 days away.

Mark your calendar

MONDAY: At 6:30 p.m. at Oakhurst Elementary School, 10535 137th St. N in Largo, the district will hold a special education information meeting. Walsingham, Mildred Helms and Ridgecrest elementaries are invited.

WEDNESDAY: At 6:30 p.m. at Largo High School, 410 Missouri Ave., the district will hold its final special education information meeting. Seminole High is also invited.

WEDNESDAY: Applicants to countywide magnet programs, fundamental schools and career academies must accept their invitations by this date.

DEC. 13: This is the final deadline for returning all choice applications and declarations of intent. Choice applications must be returned in person to a Family Education and Information Center. Declarations can be mailed, but the district must receive them by this date.

_ Send questions about choice to Kelly Ryan Gilmer, and please indicate whether your name can be used in the column. E-mail Write to St. Petersburg Times newsroom, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731. Or fax (727) 893-8675.