LARGO — Some Pinellas County School Board members may be softening to parents’ pleas to keep a long-contested school feeder pattern in place, but they have until Tuesday’s School Board meeting to reach a final decision.
Douglas L. Jamerson Elementary in St. Petersburg is the only nonfundamental school in the county where graduating students are guaranteed spots in a fundamental school — the popular Thurgood Marshall Fundamental Middle — without applying like other students in the district. School Board members will vote Tuesday on whether to do away with the “feeder pattern,” instead giving those students priority at nearby Bay Point Middle and Azalea Middle. Many parents, though, sent their children to Jamerson expressly to get them into the fundamental middle school and argue that the school district needs to give them more time to adjust before changing the status quo.
Before Tuesday’s School Board workshop, a petition signed by 427 parents and students was emailed to School Board members; the petitions asks for an additional six years before the change takes place so students that were promised admittance to Thurgood Marshall upon enrollment can filter through the school.
At the School Board’s last meeting, a barrage of parents spoke against the proposal, prompting School Board member Janet Clark to warn them that using angry rhetoric and putting down other schools causes School Board members to be “less thoughtful in listening.”
But for Terry Krassner, some of the parent’s points stuck.
“At first, we were going to add Bay Point as an option and maintain the feeder as it exists; that’s what bothers me more than anything,” Krassner said. “It’s been a positive experience at both places. ... I still don’t understand the rationale for getting rid of it.”
Many of the students in the naturally integrated school — 48 percent of students are black and 48 percent are white — have been together since kindergarten and expected to go to middle school together. In fact, the school’s current brochure advertises that transition, Krassner said. If the School Board votes to get rid of the feeder pattern, the decision would go into effect next school year, and parents deserve more warning to find alternative schools, she said.
Of all the fundamental middle schools in Pinellas, Thurgood Marshall has the fewest seats available for students that don’t receive priority status because of parents who work at the school or siblings who are enrolled. At Thurgood Marshall, 61 seats are available to students without priority status. At Madeira Beach Fundamental Middle there are 81, and at Clearwater Fundamental Middle there are 122 seats. If the feeder pattern goes away, sending students to Azalea or Bay Point, the number of available seats for those students would increase by 45 seats to 106.
Bay Point is a C school and Azalea is an F school, while Thurgood Marshall is an A school with a waiting list; but both Azalea and Bay Point are creating new, strong academic programs for science, technology engineering and math that can compete with Thurgood Marshall’s, said School Board Chairwoman Carol Cook. If parents had two or three years to see how those programs performed once they were up and running, they may be more inclined to send their children there, Cook said.
Planning for the change has already “begun in earnest,” and the Jamerson PTA will do a walkthrough at Bay Point on Friday said Bill Lawrence, the school district’s director of student demographics, assignment and capacity. More collaborative meetings will begin in the next two weeks, he said.
“One of the things I’ve learned is the more exceptions you make, the more problems you create,” Superintendent Michael Grego said. “If we give preferential treatment for one and not the others, we need to be able to stand on solid ground as to why we’re doing it.”