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Most students choose to say put

About two-thirds of Pinellas County students have decided to avoid a new school choice plan and stay in their zoned schools for fall 2003.

Those 67,000 students have filled out paperwork to indicate that they want to exercise a privilege called "grandfathering," which allows them to stay in their current school or on track to attend zoned schools.

With the choice application deadline about three weeks away, only 9,800 students so far have branched out and completed applications to change schools.

It's not a surprise.

District officials knew that grandfathering was like a pass to skip choice, a way to move slowly into choice rather than uproot all current students at once. For parents, staying put may be the safest path in a time of great uncertainty.

Does that mean next fall will be less chaotic than some have feared? Not necessarily, says Superintendent Howard Hinesley.

"It's premature," Hinesley said, pointing out that schools will be required to be racially balanced for the first four years of choice.

"We've got to look at how this shakes out with the ratios."

At this point, district officials are more focused on another number: 27,054. That is the number of current students who have not made a choice.

This week, the district is mailing letters to those students, reminding them that they must participate in choice by Dec. 13. If they don't, the district will assign them to a school.

The district also is mailing letters to students who selected grandfathering or applied for a new school. If the information in the letter is correct, families don't have to respond to the letter. If the information is wrong, families must contact a Family Education and Information Center by Dec. 13.

The letters should begin arriving today.

A survey released last year predicted what is coming true: Many families want their zoned neighborhood schools. In some areas, families have long been accustomed to schools close to home. Those families have moved quickly to keep it that way.

For example, well-regarded schools such as Brooker Creek Elementary, Palm Harbor University High and East Lake High are almost filled with grandfathered students.

East Lake, for example, already has 1,875 students signed up for next year. That number isn't broken down by grade levels, so it is difficult to tell where any openings might be. But with a capacity of about 2,300, there won't be many. With choice deadline on Dec. 13, even more families might be eligible for grandfathering.

East Lake principal Clayton Snare isn't surprised that so many students want attend his Tarpon Springs school. But he doesn't think it's because East Lake is any better than the other 15 high schools. High schools students, he said, simply want schools in their neighborhoods.

"This is the fastest growing community in Pinellas County," Snare said. "People who live near here want to come here."

Other schools, at least at this point, look empty. But are they really? Many are still scrambling to get their current students to fill out the necessary paperwork. That's a challenge, especially areas where families tend to move frequently or are not fluent in English.

Take Southern Oak Elementary in Largo.

So far, the district says, only 260 students are signed up for next year. Principal Robert Ammon's building can hold about 650.

He still has 180 current students who haven't filled out paperwork. There will be a new class of kindergarteners. And he doesn't know how many students might try to transfer to Southern Oak from other schools.

Choice is a big unknown right now, Ammon said. He just doesn't know how to predict whether his school will be full.

"It's not a perfect process," Ammon said. "We're just going to be optimistic that it's going to work out."

Up next:Q & A

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