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Not much of a choice for new residents

SITUATION: New to Pinellas County, Times copy editor Saleem Syed-Ali found seats at new attendance area schools.

In June we relocated from Logan, Utah, a university town that had six elementaries, a middle school and a high school.

Utah's spending per student is notoriously low, but many schools there thrive because so many parents volunteer. In fact, our children's elementary rated among the best in the state.

We moved to Pinellas this summer and encountered a big mystery: choice. We quickly had to learn how this system, foreign to us, worked. The application period had closed months before we moved here, so we had to choose from what was left. (This year, the deadline for 2004 will be missed by anyone who moves to the county after Nov. 1).

We started trying to learn more about the Pinellas school system when I first applied for a job at the St. Petersburg Times. We found a number of useful articles written late last year, when choice was first introduced, on the Times' Web site. We also checked out the Web sites of the Pinellas County School Board and the Florida Department of Education. We downloaded and put on CDs information about many school possibilities, school scores awarded by the state board, test questions on FCAT and the addresses of the Family Education Information Centers. We contacted acquaintances of acquaintances in St. Petersburg to find out more about the schools, only to be told that "choice" was a new equation, and old wisdom was not much use anymore.

We also calculated distances from various neighborhoods to the Times' downtown office so we would have a realistic idea of commuting time for my work.

Because we were coming here long after the choice deadline, we knew our options were limited to schools that still had seats open. Based on the information we had gathered, a week after we arrived we went to the family center in St. Petersburg. Schools with good scores and FCAT results were long gone, so we had to settle for what held promise, two new schools: Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle School for our seventh-grader and James B. Sanderlin Elementary for our fifth-grader.

Sanderlin may blossom, but an open house was disappointing: Just five families in our daughter's class showed up. We know from our years in the PTA in Utah that parental involvement is a key indicator of a child's success.

Marshall, likewise, may find it difficult to deliver on its promises. Discipline may become an issue. My son's bus is consistently late because, he says, some kids are rude to the bus driver; that means stopping the bus to issue a warning.

Our "choice" is limited to public schools. We cannot afford private ones. Homeschooling is not an option _ our son's math skills are edging beyond my graduate degree in journalism or, in my wife's case, graphic design.

So we knew we would be in the public school system, and we find that although we know a fair bit about local schools in theory, nothing educates like reality.

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