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  1. Education

Playing the school choice lottery in Pinellas

Published Jan. 5, 2016

Any way you look at them, the numbers can seem daunting.

Last year, 11,266 students submitted applications in the Pinellas County school choice lottery, each hoping to get into a magnet program, a fundamental school or a high school academy. The system, however, had room for only 7,500 of them.

From 2014 to 2015, the number of available seats in those programs increased by 389, but the number of applicants shot up by 860. And more than 1,400 students landed on a waiting list for their first-choice school last year, up about 200 from the year before.

While thousands of students actually do get into a program, it's difficult not to feel worried about your odds. But there are ways to improve your chances in the lottery — first by navigating the system correctly, then by being strategic in your approach. Here are some basic and advanced tips:

The basics

1. Submit an application between Jan. 6-15.

2. Follow up. The school district doesn't call, email or send letters to alert families about invitations to special programs. It's up to you to return to the Student Reservation System between Feb. 3 and 10 to see if your student received any invitations or landed on any waiting lists. Accept an invitation before midnight on the last day and print or email a confirmation.

3. If you subscribe, the district will send you email reminders about when the application and acceptance periods start. Visit pcsb.org/choice and click on the yellow "Sign Up Now" tab.

4. Too many students each year apply to programs for which they are ineligible. Check the program requirements or call the school before applying. Otherwise, you could waste one of your choices on a program for which your student doesn't qualify.

Advanced strategies

1. Students can rank up to five choices when they apply. Put your top choice first — even if it's one of the most coveted programs in the district, such as Osceola Fundamental High or Madeira Beach Fundamental K-8 — but consider making a less competitive school your second choice.

Some have had success with another strategy: making a less competitive but acceptable school their top choice. While you may miss out on hitting the jackpot, you increase your chances of winning a spot.

Picking five competitive programs could result in no invitation at all. To help gauge how competitive a program is, consult the charts on this page. Note whether applications have increased year to year, and compare the number of applications among programs.

2. The best shot to get into competitive programs is at the entry-level grades — kindergarten, sixth and ninth. Kindergarten is particularly open because most students don't have "priority status." (Students get an edge by having attended a fundamental, having a parent employed at a school, having a sibling at a school or living nearby.) Remember that fundamental schools are tough to get into past the elementary years.

3. Didn't get a seat in a special program in kindergarten? Try again in fourth grade. Florida's class-size amendment increases the number of students in each class to 22 in fourth grade, up from 18 in the lower grades. That potentially opens a few more seats. It's worth calling the school to check.

4. It's notoriously difficult to get into special programs in Pinellas. But the school district added eleven new programs over the previous two years, which has had the effect of freeing up seats in traditionally competitive programs.

5. Don't panic. Students on the waiting list have a chance to get a seat. For various reasons, some families decline their invitations, so seats can open up. It's worth calling the school to find out how many students typically are pulled from the waiting list each year before making a final decision.

Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at cfitzpatrick@tampabay.com. Follow @Fitz_ly. Contact Thomas C. Tobin at tobin@tampabay.com. Follow @ThomasCTobin.

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