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School choice deadline is Friday

Friday is the last day parents can apply to send children to schools outside their neighborhoods for the 2005-2006 school year through Hillsborough's controlled choice and magnet programs.

Next fall will be the second year of the choice plan, which offers parents more school options on a space-available basis.

Magnet schools, which provide special programs such as performing arts and technology, are available to children countywide.

Most parents can apply via phone, online with a student identification number or in person at five Parent Resource Centers or at the School Administrative Center, 901 E Kennedy Blvd.

Children entering kindergarten, sixth grade or ninth grade next school year who live in suburban regions are eligible for choice, as are children of any grade level in urban zones. The application period that ends Friday applies to children entering grades 1 through 12.

Parents of upcoming kindergarteners can begin applying for choice today through April 18 at all elementary schools and Parent Resource Centers. For those interested in participating in an early lottery, applications must be returned by Jan. 18. Parents will be notified beginning Jan. 31.

Amid waning interest in Hillsborough's school choice and magnet programs, the School Board extended application deadlines last month, giving students another month to ask for placement.

Last week, seven workers spent four days at University Mall and Westfield Shoppingtown Brandon to collect about 60 applications.

"The malls went reasonably good, but not as good as we had hoped," said Jeri Nelson, choice communication specialist.

Only 472 students had applied for choice as of last month, compared with 6,488 last year.

The plan began this fall and replaces court-ordered busing for desegregation. The goal is to keep racial and ethnic diversity by allowing students to pick a school other than a neighborhood school.

The choice plan divides the county into seven geographic regions, with each consisting of at least four high schools, five middle schools and several elementary schools.

Funded by a $10-million federal grant, the choice plan has been plagued with problems, starting with children who were wrongly assigned to crowded schools last year.

This year, about one-third of the county's schools were closed to choice because of crowding, a mailing to parents was delayed and the district's choice Web site offered limited access for several weeks.

Another option available to parents is "open choice," formerly called special assignment. Parents can send their children to any non-magnet school in the county, with space, if they provide transportation. Selections are on a first-come, first-served basis. "Open choice" applications will be accepted through June 30.

Parent Resource Centers are at: Pierce Middle School, 5511 N Hesperides Ave. in Tampa; Bowers-Whitley Career Center, 13609 N 22nd St. Room 404 in Tampa; Kimbell Full Service Center 2100 E 26th Ave. in Tampa; Nifong Building, 703 N Thomas St. in Plant City; and Robles Elementary School, 4405 E Sligh Ave. in Tampa.

For more information, call the choice hotline number between 8 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. Monday through Friday at (813) 272-4692.

Melanie Ave can be reached at (813) 226-3400 or melaniesptimes.com.

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