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  1. The Education Gradebook

Families get more choices as Pinellas broadens its school options

The Pinellas County School District is mostly a system of traditional neighborhood schools where students are assigned based on where they live.

But you can feel a distinct shift over the past two years in favor of families who want to look beyond their zoned school. Their options are expanding as the district hurries to match the growth of charter schools, private schools and a state voucher system that pays private school tuition for low-income students.

Last year, Pinellas added special programs at six schools — a middle school arts program, a high school international studies program and technology magnets at two elementaries and two middle schools.

This year, we see more of the same.

As you will read in the 19th edition of School Search, Pinellas is launching five more programs for 2015-16 — three in international studies, another middle school program focused on technology, and a "personalized learning" school for students in grades 6-12, inspired by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Still to come in the near future: an arts magnet in Clearwater that will serve as the north county equivalent of the long-established and wildly popular Perkins Elementary in St. Petersburg.

All this expansion still won't quiet the complaint we hear every year when compiling School Search, that you have to win the lottery in Pinellas County to get into a good school. Last year at this time, nearly 10,500 students applied for special programs, up 7 percent. And more than 4,000 of those received not a single invitation.

Those numbers likely will be high again this year, but the picture is getting brighter.

In his message to families kicking off the annual January application process, superintendent Mike Grego counted more than 60 "choice programs" in the Pinellas system, and added: "We are listening to families and will continue to develop new educational choices based on your feedback."

With this special section, our goal is to help families navigate the system as they work to find the right school for their children. It's built around the start this week of the application period for magnet, fundamental and career programs. But it also includes information on private and charter schools, who are recruiting students with open houses and application deadlines of their own in the next few weeks.

As always, we offer School Search as a starting point for families.

You may have attended the district's discovery nights in the fall. If not, many schools are still offering tours and shadowing opportunities. Talking with other parents is strongly recommended, as is checking the available data.

The Florida Department of Education website (fldoe.org) is a good place to begin. Start your research under the tab labeled "accountability."

Another resource is greatschools.org, which rates each school on several criteria and offers consumer reviews from parents and teachers, even students.

Be sure to pay attention to the dates of the reviews (some are older), and put the information in the same category as you would a single test score or a chat at the grocery store with another parent. It's only a piece of the puzzle. But it is helpful to read a lively, detailed narrative about a school.

Finally, you should probably consult the District Application Programs Guide available at pcsb.org — especially if you have questions about programs that accept student applications only from certain parts of the county. The guide has maps and other helpful information.

Good luck in your quest, and let us know if we can help.

Contact Thomas C. Tobin at tobin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8923. Follow @ThomasCTobin.

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