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For many, choice lies near home

Given the chance to choose a school, many African-American families decided to keep their children closer to home.

That means away from the county's northern suburbs.

Sixty percent of the schools in the Times' North of Tampa region had smaller percentages of black students in attendance a month into the new academic year than they did on the last day of classes in May, according to district records.

Among those showing increases, three in five saw their African-American population rise by less than 2 percentage points.

These changes represent pretty much what the schools expected _ even though district leaders had hoped to see schools remain integrated without forced busing.

"It makes sense because they went back to their neighborhood schools," said Pansy Houghton, district coordinator for evaluation. "For years, some of them never had the opportunity to attend their neighborhood schools because of busing."

The initial dips might not be the last, officials added.

Some children may have chosen to remain at the school where they already knew their classmates and teachers, even though the campus was far from home, choice supervisor Beleria Floyd noted. They might leave their suburban schools when moving from elementary to middle, or middle to high, she said.

Also, although some children were grandfathered into their suburban schools, their siblings no longer will have a guaranteed spot at the same campus, district spokesman Mart Hart said. Moreover, the mobility of many lower-income minority families meant they did not settle on a residence in time to meet the choice application deadlines, said Cathy Valdes, supervisor of the district's New Tampa area schools.

Those factors combined could mean even more racially identifiable schools in the future _ something the district hoped to avoid creating.

Floyd predicted that the numbers will rise and fall, and possibly will even out once the district's attractor program takes hold. Like magnet schools, attractors are designed to lure students because of their academic programs, overriding the perceived negative of a long ride to school.

"We're hoping our attractors will attract the kids in the suburban areas to go to schools in the urban areas, and vice versa," she said.

School leaders, meanwhile, refused to look at the changes in their student populations as anything but positive.

"We still have a good ethnic balance of children," said Lois Mautte, assistant principal at Schwarzkopf Elementary in Cheval.

Schwarzkopf saw its black student population decline from 11 percent in the spring to 6 percent this fall.

"Although the number of African-American children has dropped, we seem to have a larger number of Hispanic children," Mautte said, adding that more children who previously attended private schools also had enrolled at Schwarzkopf. "You have to look at the whole composition of the school."

Valdes also pointed to the fact that large numbers of the bused minority students who attended suburban schools last year came back. She named Hunter's Green, Pride, Clark and Tampa Palms elementary schools as examples.

"The schools took a very active part in trying to recruit their students back," she said, often with great success. Without those children, Valdes said, the percentages of African-American students would have been lower.

She suggested that the children who did not choose the suburban schools often were those who recently moved into an area that had schools from which to select. Lacking any experience with those campuses, Valdes said, the families picked schools closer to home.

Farnell Middle School on the outskirts of Westchase was among the few area schools to show modest growth in its African-American student population. It had less than 10 percent in May, and 13 percent this month.

Assistant principal David Streeter expressed surprise upon learning the numbers.

"I don't think we did anything special to attract African-Americans, or any students, for that matter," Streeter said.

He figured that the increase was a natural occurrence that came because the school is in a high-growth area. Farnell ended the 2003-04 school year with 1,253 students, and had 1,441 in attendance on Sept. 8, the 20th day of classes.

"We're able to serve those students the same way we served students last year," Streeter said.

School Board chairman Glenn Barrington said the choice plan was working just fine, whether campuses became more or less segregated.

"We teach the same at all the schools, so it's no difference to me. It's the choice of the students," Barrington said. "I can't believe that black people need to have white people around to learn."

The district plans to keep track of the numbers, Floyd said, to make sure that the lack of a court desegregation order does not translate into separate school systems.

"This is our first year," she said. "We need a chance to analyze the data and see what's working and what's not."

_ Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at (813) 269-5304 or

Choice numbers

The percentage of black students in Hillsborough County schools.

School 2003-04 20th day 2004


Bay Crest 10.5 12

Bellamy 9.3 14

Bryant 7.4 6

Cannella 18.4 13

Carrollwood 20 12

Chiles 21.5 18

Citrus Park 10.2 9

Clark 16.8 13

Claywell 13.2 10

Crestwood 14.7 17

Davis n/a 11

Dickenson 15.8 11

Essrig 9.8 11

Forest Hills 23.4 26

Heritage 19.3 20

Hunter's Green 10.3 12

Lake Magd. 14.4 8

Lowry 9.9 9

Lutz 3.2 3

Maniscalco 12.9 7

McKitrick 5.7 5

Morgan Woods 13.1 11

Mort 42.2 36

Muller 28.1 29

Northwest 6.3 7

Pizzo 38.6 39

Pride 19.8 19

Schwarzkopf 10.9 6

Tampa Palms 24.9 21

Temple Terrace 45.3 44

Town 'N Country 15.4 13

Westchase 2 2

Woodbridge 21.3 18


Adams 16.0 21

Benito 24.0 28

Buchanan 21.0 27

Davidsen 11.7 9

Farnell 9.7 13

Greco 48.3 49

Hill 15.5 11

Liberty 20.5 20

Martinez 6.4 7

Pierce 18 20

Walker 11.3 10

Webb 24.7 16


Alonso 9.9 11

Chamberlain 20.2 21

Freedom 23.4 21

Gaither 6.3 7

Jefferson 31.9 32

Leto 11.7 11

Sickles 5.7 7

Wharton 29.7 31

Source: Hillsborough County School District.