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84% get first school choice

A computer has officially decided where thousands of Hillsborough public school students will attend school next year, the historic beginning of the district's controlled choice plan.

Most will be happy with their assignments.

Eighty-four percent of the students who participated in the choice plan received their first pick of schools. Fewer than 1 percent got their second and third choices.

But 15 percent, mostly parents of kindergarten students, got none of their choices.

Confirmation postcards will be mailed beginning Monday, slightly behind the school district's original plan to notify parents Friday.

Kindergarten parents will be mailed letters and asked to call the district since spaces at their chosen schools may open up closer to the beginning of the school year.

The computer match process was delayed a bit as administrators struggled to determine the maximum number of spaces in the schools open to choice students without making the campuses too crowded.

Of the district's 180,000 students, 47,000 were eligible for the inaugural year of the new choice plan. Of those, 6,488 students applied to attend a school other than their current one, and 3,600 students who were bused for desegregation chose to stay put.

The vast majority of eligible students, about 37,128, decided to stay at their neighborhood schools and did not participate.

Despite the low total participation, district officials hailed the first year's matchups as a success based on how many students will get to go where they want.

They believe the reason few students chose to go elsewhere is a sign that most parents are happy with their children's schools.

"I really feel good in the fact that we had almost 85 percent" getting their first choice, said superintendent Earl Lennard. "That's an overwhelming number."

The black mark on the first year's selections are the kindergarten enrollments.

Only 37 percent of kindergarten parents got their favorite school, while 62 percent didn't get any of their choices.

The reason, according to district spokesman Mark Hart, was the few spaces the district opened to kindergarteners because of an uncertainty of their enrollment.

Administrators never know from year to year how many kindergarteners they will have, unlike in other grades where they can use the previous year as an indication.

Because of that, the caps were kept low.

Hart said more kindergarteners may eventually get the school of their choice.

Some students will choose to bypass their choice schools and attend neighborhood schools; therefore, more spaces for more choice students including the kindergarteners will be available closer to August.

"They still may get it," he said.

Of the 6,488 students who participated in choice, 5,451 got their top choice, 39 got their second choice and seven got their third choice. Another 991 did not get any of their choices.

The grade with the highest level of first choice selections were the 23 high school seniors, all of whom got the school they wanted to attend the most.

The district's next step in the choice process will be to find schools for the students who needed to fill out an application but did not.

Of the 50,000 eligible, only 6,489 had to choose. They are the students who will be bused for segregation. Most of them are African-American.

About 3,600 indicated a desire to continue their cross-county commutes and 900 selected schools elsewhere.

That left 1,987 bused students who did nothing and must now be assigned to schools.

In the coming weeks, the district will assign them to schools that are closest to their homes with space available.

While it took years to develop the choice plan, and months to market it, the computer match took only minutes to complete late Thursday night after a test run earlier in the day.

This is how it worked: The computer started with a list of all schools and the maximum number of students allowed in each grade at each school.

It then assigned random numbers to each student and begin assigning them to schools by first, second and third choice, starting with the 12th grade and working down.

The computer stopped assigning students to schools once the designated caps were met.

For parents who are unhappy with their choice schools, there is no formal appeal process. But if their children are normally assigned to a neighborhood school, they may return there and bypass their choice school.

Displeased parents also can apply for special assignment permits through June 30, but they must provide transportation to the requested schools.

For the first time, students need no special excuse such as proximity to after-school care to apply for special assignment. Students will be assigned to schools first-come, first-served where space is available.

To participate in choice, parents had to fill out choice applications from Nov. 15 through Jan. 9.

The overall purpose of the choice plan is to encourage voluntary school desegregation by encouraging crossover between black and white neighborhoods.

The reason the assignment of students to schools is changing and busing is ending is because a federal appeals court in 2001 said Hillsborough was free of segregation and should no longer be under judicial scrutiny.

Busing will no longer be a tool to keep a varied racial mix of students at schools.

To accomplish racial diversity voluntarily, the computer gave preference to students living in urban "zones" who want to attend suburban "region" schools and vice versa.

School assignment boundaries remain the same, but are overlaid with a choice of other schools, some suburban and some urban, in seven geographic regions.

The hope was that white students would opt for urban schools offering magnet programs and other enticements, and that black students would choose the suburban schools they now attend as part of court-ordered busing.

Despite busing, which began in 1971, Hillsborough schools have grown increasingly racially divided along black and white lines. As of this fall, there were 27 schools where more than 40 percent of the students were black and 45 schools where black enrollment is 10 percent or less.

When the School Board approved the choice plan in 2000, 26 schools had student bodies that were more than 40 percent black and 24 that were less than 10 percent black.

It is not yet known how choice will affect the diversity of the county's schools but Lennard said he is hopeful.

His hope is driven by the 3,600 bused students who chose to attend suburban schools rather than attend ones closer to their homes.

"At this point," Lennard said, "it looks like the choice plan is a success."

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A few choice numbers

A quick look at Hillsborough County's first controlled choice numbers:

+ Total eligible: 47,216

+ Estimated number of those who chose to stay at their neighborhood schools and not participate: 37,128

+ Total number of bused students who had to choose or be assigned by the district to a school: 6,489

+ Of the bused students, number who will be assigned to a school by the district because they did not declare whether they wanted to go elsewhere or stay at their current school: 1,987

+ Of the bused students, number who indicated a desire to stay at their current school: 3,600

+ Total number of bused and neighborhood students who submitted applications to change schools: 6,488

+ Districtwide enrollment: 180,000

_ Source: Hillsborough County School District