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Perkins no longer expects overflow

The number of students at the popular Perkins Elementary School for arts and international studies will rise next year, but not dramatically.

For a while last week it looked as though Perkins would start the first year of school choice with about 25 percent more regular education students than it has now. Perkins officials worried that portable classrooms would be needed on the 3{-year-old campus, or that arts programs would be diluted by crowding.

That no longer seems likely. After parents raised a ruckus, the district decided that Perkins could not hold as many students as thought only days earlier.

Along with returning students and those attending through the countywide magnet application process, an additional 29 will attend under a provision called "alternate grandfathering."

The grandfathering provision was a promise that students who were bused from their neighborhoods for desegregation could attend schools closer to home.

The new number is substantially less than the 129-student increase that appeared likely earlier in the week.

"It's so much better than what we thought we were facing," said Pat Archibald, the magnet coordinator. "We can work with that number." Last week, Perkins had an enrollment of 542 students, not counting prekindergarten and special education students.

District officials are putting in overtime this weekend, sorting out where as many as 100 students will go to school next year.

The news that Perkins could be facing scores of unexpected students sent shockwaves through the closely knit community Tuesday. Phones rang off the hook. Several meetings were held during the week, and talk circulated of legal action against the district.

The crisis precipitated a nearly two-hour meeting Wednesday between district officials, including superintendent Howard Hinesley and Perkins principal Robert Lister.

Among the options discussed, the superintendent said, were hiring more teachers and bringing in portables.

"We would not intentionally overcrowd that school," Hinesley said.

Lister sent a letter home to parents later that day telling them that the district was aware of the damage overcrowding could do and that officials planned to "continue to explore every possible solution" to resolve the issue.

"My little kindergartener came home and she said to me, "Mommy, Mr. Lister hopes the school isn't going to have to change too much,' " said Bethany Reynolds, whose daughter, Bayley, travels from mid county to attend the school. "It brought tears to my eyes."

Like many parents, Reynolds said she was not concerned about more children attending the school. Her fear was that more children would dilute the program.

For years, Perkins had accepted students in one of two ways: Children who lived in a small zone near the school automatically got to attend, but the bulk of the seats were filled by the countywide magnet lottery.

That changed last fall because of the advent of school choice, the district's new approach for matching students and schools. It is the solution worked out to end three decades of court-ordered busing for desegregation.

In the case of Perkins, the magnet seats were divvied up the same way as always by computer lottery. But with the coming of choice, the neighborhood zone disappeared. Instead, a certain number of seats were to be set aside for students living in the new Attendance Area A _ basically southern Pinellas.

The number of seats available for those choice applications depended on the school's capacity. And that was the point on which the district and the school disagreed last week. The district said there was room, and the school said there wasn't.

But first, officials had to take into account a new group of students: those choosing the school by alternate grandfathering. These were children who had never attended Perkins but had been promised a school closer to home. By Friday, everyone agreed that it was possible to find room for them at Perkins, just barely.

Updated numbers released by the district late Friday indicated that the situation was not as dire as the parents first thought.

The 29 alternate grandfathered students have been notified of their placement at Perkins and have the right to attend. But the other 100 or so _ apparently tentatively placed there because of their choice applications _ may be going somewhere else. Technically, those students can be redirected to other schools, the district said.

"We're not "unplacing' them, because they haven't been placed," said Al Swinyard, the assistant superintendent in charge of the choice computer process. "We're rematching them."

Officials hope the situation will be resolved shortly and feel confident that no other problems will arise that will delay letters, scheduled to go out in mid March, informing parents of their children's placement. They hope that the mismatched numbers at Perkins are an isolated problem and that no other schools will find themselves in such a fix.

But it's unclear what would have happened if parents had not raised a fuss _ or what effect such pressure may have had on the district's decision to take a hard look at the numbers and reassess.

In a district of 118 schools, Perkins got a lot of attention last week.

"I thoroughly believe no one wanted this to happen," said Lister, the principal. "We all seem to be caught short-handed on this issue."

He said accommodating the additional 29 students would not strain the magnet program. Three of them will enter first grade, eight will enter second grade, nine will enter third grade, six will enter fourth grade and three will enter fifth grade. The students have been attending schools including Bardmoor, Skyview, Cross Bayou and Southern Oak elementaries.

"We can find a way to assimilate those students into the program and make the best education possible for them," said Archibald, the magnet coordinator. "We will welcome them because Perkins is their choice."