Pinellas schools need to better meet parents' needs

Published Jan. 11, 2013

Another year has passed, and the same stressful school choice process is unfolding for Pinellas families seeking alternatives to their neighborhood schools in 2013-14. Yet nothing has changed from last year to reflect the changing preferences of families. Low-demand programs remain open while high-demand ones turn hundreds of students away. New superintendent Mike Grego and the School Board should ensure the supply better meets the demand a year from now.

Board members attribute the lack of progress to the transition in district leadership. But the issue should now take center stage, particularly when it comes to low demand for some magnet programs and the continued clamoring for fundamental programs, particularly in elementary schools outside of St. Petersburg and in middle and high schools.

The growing enrollments of privately run charter schools — particularly in mid and north county, where there are fewer public magnet and fundamental programs — is a symptom that the public schools need more seats in popular programs. Many parents whose children are trapped in zoned schools that continue to earn low performance grades feel understandable anxiety.

Until all of the district's schools measure up, it's reasonable for families to want more options. At the start of the 2012-13 school year, roughly 1,400 students remained on a waiting list for one of the district's 6,389 magnet or fundamental school spots. But the unmet demand is concentrated in a few programs — most notably fundamental programs or certain magnets — while other low-demand programs are continuing.

The most pressing discussion involves fundamental schools, particularly when it comes to middle and high school programs. Feeder programs to the fundamentals prevent many other students from even a chance of getting into those schools. And at elementary schools, there is so little access outside St. Petersburg, for example, that Curtis Fundamental in Dunedin drew two times the number of first-choice applicants than it could serve.

There is a delicate balance when it comes to expanding fundamental schools, which have strict discipline codes and participation demands that can prove onerous to working parents. The lack of busing also can be a hurdle for some families and favors those in higher socioeconomic classes. The broader answer to improving public education in Pinellas is not a massive expansion of fundamental schools. It's raising the quality of all schools.

But increasing the seats for fundamental schools and popular magnet programs to more closely match demand is a discussion district leaders should begin. Otherwise, they risk losing more families to charter schools and private schools — and further undermining broad support for public education.