For more than two decades, the Times’ annual School Search project has helped families sort through their education options — a task that gets more complex by the year.
Florida continues to approve more charter schools and expand “scholarship” programs that steer public dollars toward private schools. Public schools have responded by adding more magnet programs and career academies to their catalogs. Private schools are stepping up with their own offerings, each promising a unique experience for your child.
Increasingly, fewer and fewer schools tout themselves as just plain schools. The trend is to offer something special.
Getting into these programs is another matter altogether, with deadlines, wait lists and school lotteries to consider. The goal of School Search is to help Tampa Bay area families stay on top of all that.
The project started in the late 1990s, focusing on a handful of magnet programs being offered by the Pinellas County school district. As the choices grew, so did School Search, which expanded two years ago to include Hillsborough, Pasco and Hernando counties.
This guide is primarily geared to families exploring options beyond their zoned public school as their kids enter kindergarten, middle school or high school. But we also keep in mind families wanting to make a change midstream. If you’re in either of these groups, now is the time to pay attention.
In the coming days, area school districts will be holding events that allow families to learn more about choice programs. After that, it’s time to attend open houses or “Discovery Nights” to actually see schools and meet their staffs. Then it’s time to apply. And if your child gains the desired seat, you must formally accept that invitation.
Many schools encourage prospective students to come in and shadow for a day, a practice we encourage. Talking with other parents with kids in those programs also is strongly recommended, as is checking the available data.
Good luck. We hope this guide will serve as a helpful starting point as you begin your own school search.