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Unhappy with first drawing, parents re-enter school lotto

Harriett Barton had a distinct "been there, done that" feeling Wednesday morning.

As she inched her way toward the door of the Family Education and Information Center, she wondered if she was foolish to think that maybe she would be lucky this time.

She was there for her 9-year-old son. She kept that thought in mind to fight the impulse to get back in her car and drive home. For Moses' sake, she had to give "controlled choice" another chance.

Barton found herself among a small group of parents who are trying "controlled choice" for a second time, even though they don't have to. They have decided to enter the second round of the school district's student assignment lottery because they were dissatisfied with where the system placed their students for the 2003-04 school year.

The application period opened Sept. 1 and officially ended Saturday, but parents can still submit paperwork until 4:30 p.m. Monday.

In trying again, parents of current Pinellas students who are not incoming kindergarteners, sixth-graders or ninth-graders automatically give up their child's current seat as well as their "extended grandfathering" privilege, which guarantees an elementary school student a seat in a particular middle school and a middle school student a seat in a particular high school.

Many, like Barton, felt they have little to lose.

For two years, Moses was one of thousands of African-American children who were bused out of their neighborhoods to achieve desegregation. Every morning was the same 10-mile bus ride that took him 74 blocks from his Bartlett Park home to attend Blanton Elementary School.

Like many parents, Barton was intrigued last year when she heard about "controlled choice," a new student assignment plan touted by the district for its ability to give parents more say in where their children attend school.

"I thought it was a good thing," Barton said. "I thought, "That means I can choose a school closer to home.' "

She picked five schools, all within 4 miles of her home, and was one of the first parents to turn in her paperwork at the family center last year. She learned in February that Moses got none of his choices. Instead, he was assigned to Lynch Elementary, a school only 2 miles closer than Blanton.

The stop where Moses catches the bus is farther than three of the schools to which Barton applied.

"I was very disappointed," she said. "I didn't even know where Lynch was."

She has major reasons for wanting Moses close to home. Five years ago, he suffered a traumatic brain injury when a truck ran over him. He still suffers from severe headaches.

"He has gone through so much," she said. "I might be overly concerned about him, but I just wanted him closer to me."

Barton is not alone in her discontent. District figures show that while 77 percent of the county's 112,246 students got their first choice for 2003-04, 7 percent got none of their choices.

As of Friday, the number of parents who opted to give up a spot they can keep for one they would like was quite small _ less than 1,000 of the nearly 10,000 applications processed so far.

Chris Jackson was another parent who braved the crush of the crowd last week to re-enter the choice lottery. He and his wife, Yadira Penaranda, chose Gulfport, Bear Creek, Northwest and Westgate elementaries for their 5-year-old son, Chris Jackson.

When the child was assigned to Jamerson Elementary, Jackson and Penaranda decided to send him to private school.

"He loves St. Jude's," Jackson said. "I hate to take him out, but it winds up being pretty expensive."

Chris also needs specialized help for a learning disability that he isn't getting now, Penaranda said.

His teacher at St. Jude Cathedral School recommended he go to Bear Creek, which Penaranda says would be fine with her.

"I just hope that we get our choice and that he can be in the right place," she said.

Not all parents are re-entering choice because they were unhappy with their children's assignments. Debbie Mlavsky-Loizides was thrilled when her son, Eddie, got a coveted magnet spot in the criminal justice academy at Pinellas Park High School.

The fact that the 14-year-old spends three hours a day on a bus to get there and back dampened her enthusiasm. She had no idea that would be the case when she applied for the school.

"That's a lot of down time," she said. "There's not a lot of homework happening on the bus. By the time he gets home, he's lost his motivation."

Mlavsky-Loizides said she did not make the decision to relinquish her son's seat at a magnet school lightly.

But St. Petersburg and Northeast high schools are less than 15 minutes from her job, so if Eddie gets into one of them for next year, he no longer will have to get up at 5:15 a.m. to be in class by 7:05.

Of course, there's a risk: Because all high schools are part of one large attendance area, he could end up being assigned to a school as far away as Palm Harbor. If that happens, Mlavsky-Loizides said, Eddie will go to private school.

Unlike Jackson and Penaranda and Mlavsky-Loizides, Barton cannot afford to send her child to a private school.

"I guess I'll have to go through this again if I don't get any of my choices," she said.

"I don't think everybody can get the school they want, but you should at least be able to get some school in your neighborhood."