1. Opinion

Editorial: Promise and challenges in reopened schools

It's been five years since the Pinellas County School Board closed six elementary schools and two middle schools in the face of budget cuts and declining enrollment. Now Superintendent Mike Grego wants to reopen two of the elementary schools as magnet-style schools that will reserve half of their seats for children from nearby neighborhoods. Circumstances in each community suggest the plans have potential, but they also carry the risk of further dividing the district's offerings between those students fortunate enough to attend magnet schools and those stuck in underperforming neighborhood schools in high-poverty areas. The school board, which is expected to approve the plan today, should follow through to ensure the schools' programs are robust, busing is available and the financial projections make sense in a district that has to watch its pennies.

Grego proposes reopening Gulf Beaches in St. Pete Beach and Kings Highway in Clearwater and giving each a technology focus, including providing students at each school with a laptop or tablet to access online programs geared to boosting reading skills and FCAT performance. Also under consideration is a practice known as the "flipped classroom" to effectively extend the school day. Students would watch Web programs online outside school hours when traditionally they would be doing homework, then use this information during class.

Grego sees the plan as addressing two trends the district has been facing: satisfying unmet demand for the district's coveted lottery-only special programs, and wooing back families who looked to private or charter schools when their neighborhood school closed. Academy by the Sea, a group applying to open a Montessori-style charter school on St. Pete Beach, already has suspended its plans in order to support the district's proposal.

The district anticipates reserving an unusually high number of seats at both magnets for neighborhood children. Gulf Beaches sits in a largely affluent community while Kings Highway serves a low-income area. But it's still unclear, as the plans evolve, whether busing will be available to children who live further away. If not, that could further concentrate the socioeconomic segregation that has been accelerating in recent years in the school district. While magnet schools traditionally have provided busing, fundamental schools do not, so only families with the means and flexibility to drop off and pick up students are truly eligible to take advantage of those lottery programs.

The concentration of poverty in some Pinellas County schools, particularly in south St. Petersburg, remains an issue that needs more attention from the school district and the business community. Studies have shown that children from low-income families do better academically when they are mixed with students from families with higher incomes. Diversity in public education works not just in building a stronger community but also in building students' minds.

The end of busing for desegregation purposes has made achieving such diversity more complex. The district needs to ensure these new programs don't just widen the gap between the fortunate lottery winners for magnet and fundamental schools and the remaining students.