12 April 2008

Sometimes Close To Home School is not the case

If you live in St. Petersburg, Clearwater or anywhere else in Pinellas County and you have children going to public school you know already about the new student assignment plan that will take effect as of the 2008-2009 school year. Since 2000 school assignment in Pinellas County public schools was based on the choice model in which parents chose a school from among so many schools within a given area. For instance, middle schools had three different areas and high schools are one area, being countywide. As a parent, you got to choose the school you want your child to go to. That’s fair enough.

All that is going to change.

After much heated public debate and so many public hearings, the Pinellas County School District adopted a new student assignment plan effective as of the 2008-2009 school year. The intent of this plan is directed by a set of guiding principles, and one of them is to have students attend a school closest to their home. Another item in the guiding principles is that the Pinellas County School District saves money on transportation costs, as it costs quite a sum of money to operate the District’s so many school buses throughout Pinellas County.

Just recently the finalized attendance zone maps were released for middle and high schools; attendance zone maps for the elementary schools have been released but we’ll get to that later. I had a look at these attendance zone maps and, while a school may indeed be close to home, for many that school around the corner which could be a close to home school for you is not your assigned school.

Take Windward Pointe as an example.

Located in the far northeast reaches of the Gandy area of St. Petersburg at 4th Street North and 115th Avenue North, Windward Pointe is a 308-unit condominium complex. It was initially constructed in the early 1970’s as an apartment complex and the second phase was constructed around 1979. Two years later, in 1981 the apartment complex was converted into condominium living units and assumed the current Windward Pointe name. Its location is ideal to Tampa International Airport and Tampa via a direct connection on 4th Street North to Interstate 275 as well as St. Petersburg via 4th Street North south to Gandy Boulevard and beyond. The Carillon Office Park, home to numerous well known St. Petersburg companies, is located nearby and makes a quick commute for Windward Pointe residents who work there.

If you have children who live at Windward Pointe who go to school, you think that Meadowlawn Middle School (4.97 miles) and Northeast High School (5.45 miles) are the closest schools for your child. Under the Choice model Northeast High was accessible to you as there is one attendance area for high schools and that is countywide; however, for middle school Meadowlawn is not accessible to you because it is located in Middle School Attendance Area A. Instead, Windward Pointe is located in Middle School Attendance Area B and you could only choose from the following middle schools: Morgan Fitzgerald, Largo, Madeira Beach, Osceola, Pinellas Park or Seminole.

You got that right. None of these middle schools are in St. Petersburg. Under the Choice model your child has to travel a great distance to one of these middle schools; for example, Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School is 9.02 miles from Windward Pointe.

With the Close To Home Model coming in the 2008-2009 school year your choices for middle and high school are very limited. Again, you think that Northeast High School and Meadowlawn Middle School will become Close To Home schools for you: Think again.

Under the Close To Home Model if you live in Windward Pointe your children are going to be bussed to schools which are further than Northeast High or Meadowlawn Middle. So, your children that are entering the 6th Grade in 2008-2009 will be bussed to Morgan Fitzgerald Middle School (a distance of 9.02 miles) and those entering the 9th Grade in 2008-2009 will be bussed to Pinellas Park High School (a distance of 9.16 miles). Again, none of these schools are in St. Petersburg: Your children are going to be bussed to Largo because that’s where the two schools are located. Both schools are located on 118th Avenue North just east of 66th Street North.

Now if you are wondering where you would live to have your children attend Meadowlawn Middle and Northeast High Schools: The dividing line for middle and high schools is none other than Gandy Boulevard. That means those living south of Gandy Boulevard in the far northeast area of St. Petersburg can attend Meadowlawn and Northeast, while those north of Gandy Boulevard have practically no choice but to be bussed to Morgan Fitzgerald and Pinellas Park. Unless, of course, you get your child into one of the magnet programs offered at the schools or try to get into the school you want during the open enrollment period which I believe will be in August 2008 before the new school year starts.

In my opinion, the Pinellas County School District has done quite a disservice to the residents of Windward Pointe as well as the rest of the far northeast St. Petersburg area north of Gandy Boulevard as far as middle and high school assignments are concerned. Why?

First, the school assignments are a clear violation of the District’s Guiding Principles when the Close To Home Model was adopted. Not only will be a major expense to the District when it comes to transporting these students to these too distant schools, students on board the school buses will be mixed in with the morning and evening commutes. That means too much transit time when our children can participate in after school activities and/or to get homework done.

Second, Windward Pointe along with the rest of the immediate far northeast area of St. Petersburg loses its identity as a St. Petersburg community. Personally, I believe your children should go to school in the community that you live in. If you live in St. Petersburg, your children should be going to St. Petersburg area schools, not shipped off to Pinellas Park or Largo. This can also have the potential to drive property values downward, especially in an already depressed real estate market.

Why will it affect the real estate market as far as Windward Pointe is concerned? Families with children depend on quality education from our public schools; after all, all Pinellas County property owners have to pay taxes to the Pinellas County School District whether you have children going to school or not. People ask as part of the neighborhood evaluation process in buying a home what schools their children will have to go to. Once it is learned that children are going to have to be bussed to a distant school as opposed to the nearest school people will more than likely think twice before buying into a neighborhood.

Now for the flip side of the Close To Home coin: Elementary schools. How does that fare for which elementary school your child will be going to, especially if your child is starting school for the first time or just moved in. After all, Pinellas County has so many elementary schools.

Let’s look at the elementary school assignment, again from a Windward Pointe perspective like we did with middle and high school assignments. You may be surprised.

You will be pleased to know that your assigned elementary school is a close to home school and located in St. Petersburg. That elementary school is Sawgrass Lake Elementary School, which is located on 77th Avenue North just west of 16th Street North. At least in elementary school your children will not be bussed to a distant school outside of St. Petersburg and somewhere in the far reaches of Pinellas County.

My recommendation would be for the Pinellas County School District to go back and revisit their middle and high school close to home school assignment maps. Perhaps the boundary line for middle and high schools ought to be redrawn so that it follows Interstate 275 all the way to the Howard Frankland Bridge. I feel it is the people who live west of Interstate 275 and north of Gandy Boulevard – which is the Carillon and Feather Sound areas – that Morgan Fitzgerald and Pinellas Park should really be their close to home schools and those east of Interstate 275 and north of Gandy Boulevard should be assigned to Meadowlawn and Northeast as their close to home middle and high schools respectively.

There’s a related article in the St. Petersburg Times where a Palm Harbor mother was hoping to send her daughter to a close to home school, Palm Harbor University High School. However, it turns out that her daughter will have to be bussed to Tarpon Springs High School, which is much further away. You can read this article just by clicking on this link.

Now I want your reaction to the Pinellas County School District’s Close To Home school assignment plan.

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