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Pinellas schools bolstering magnet programs

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Published:   |   Updated: November 21, 2013 at 02:40 PM

LARGO — Parents in Pinellas County often scramble each year to enroll their students in the few desired magnet and fundamental programs, coming to School Board members, district staff and public meetings to voice their frustrations when things don’t go their way.

School district officials hope to address the problem by adding more magnets, fundamental programs, career academies and the countless other “application programs” to the mix.

Last school year, 43 percent of the more than 9,000 students that applied for application programs didn’t get accepted into any of their desired programs. Each student can apply to five programs in a year. New programs will help “create an even playing field” for schools, but getting kids to sign up or switch schools willingly and happily will be the key to success, Bill Lawrence, director of student demographics, said at the Pinellas County School Board’s workshop Wednesday.

“This shows that the demand far outweighs our supply,” Lawrence said. “We need to create programs to increase school attractiveness and keep our students engaged and interested. When we don’t, that’s when we lose them.”

School officials hope that soon every school will offer an application program with a logical “feeder pattern” for students to continue their specialized education throughout their schooling. The school district will take the first step toward that goal during January’s application period, with new programs in the under-served northern part of the county.

Next school year, the school district is going to focus on evening the playing field among area middle schools, the age level where students really begin to hone their interests, talents and abilities, Lawrence said. Four new middle school programs will be added by the 2014-2015 school year. That should help alleviate the strain on other programs in middle schools. Currently, only two middle schools offer a magnet program, and three offer fundamental programs.

During the 2014-2015 school year, Azalea Middle in St. Petersburg will have an “Engineering Gateway to Technology” program; and Pinellas Park Middle students will begin working towards a Cambridge Pre-Advanced Certificate of International Education. That’s an internationally recognized diploma, similar to an International Baccalaureate diploma, that students earn with their high school diploma that counts for college credit.

Both schools are facing a state-mandated “turnaround” after years of low school grades and students test scores, and more rigorous academic programs could bring in some of the district’s top students, district officials said. Both programs will provide seats for 264 students, 88 per grade level, and about 8,000 students would be eligible to apply based on geography.

Tarpon Springs Middle, an A school with room to spare, will add a Leadership Conservatory for the Arts and a Cambridge program that mirrors what’s offered at Tarpon Springs High. District officials hope this will attract students from overpopulated Carwise Middle and Palm Harbor Middle.

East Lake High’s award-winning engineering academy will have six to eight classrooms for a middle school version of the program that will eventually be housed in its own building on the high school’s campus. There will be space for 264 students at Tarpon Springs and 396 at East Lake.

Students who complete Azalea Middle’s engineering program would be able to enter the companion program at Boca Ciega High, and students in the Tarpon Springs programs could continue with both at Tarpon Springs High. Pinellas Park students can continue studying in the Cambridge program at Dixie Hollins High in St. Petersburg, Clearwater High and Tarpon Springs High.

“This is creating a domino effect of opening up seats when we have enough options for students to attend schools that match with their talents and abilities,” Lawrence said. “We’ll have a program for kids interested in arts, interested in science, and all will have strong academics, so we don’t bottleneck at just a few schools and everything’s more equally distributed.”

About 50 percent of the seats in the new programs will be reserved for students that live nearby, and the school district is guarding against students that take advantage of application programs to get into specific schools, Lawrence said. Priority is always given to a student’s first-choice program, no matter what, and students with siblings enrolled in a program, children of program staff and students that live near a school will have an extra weight given to their applications. For everyone else, it comes down to space and a randomized assignment process.

“This is not a gateway for getting into East Lake or some other school if you’re zoned for a high school that you don’t want to go to, so you think you can get into engineering in middle school,” said School Board member Robin Wikle. “If you’re not zoned for East Lake High, you’ll have to apply like everyone else.”

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