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New federal grant could help Pinellas add programs at five schools

Battling long waiting lists for their most successful programs and little diversity in struggling schools, Pinellas County officials on Tuesday discussed a long-term plan to add new magnet programs in schools that could use the help.

A new federal Magnet Schools Assistance Grant, which the school district applies for during the 2015-16 school year, could put programs in five schools for the 2016-17 or 2017-18 school year, said Bill Lawrence, director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity. The school district sent a survey to parents to see which magnet programs they might like their children to attend in the 2016-17 or 2017-18 school year, Lawrence said. Parents favored programs that focused on science, technology, engineering and math, the survey results showed, while performing arts programs were a close second.

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A performing arts program at Perkins Elementary might be the most requested elementary program in the district, Lawrence said. Sandy Lane in Clearwater may open a similar “knock-your-socks-off” program to make room for 592 students still on the waiting list at Perkins, and Tyrone Middle in St. Petersburg could open a technology magnet. Tyrone is one of the only middle schools in south Pinellas without a magnet program, he said.

John Hopkins Middle in St. Petersburg and Mildred Helms and Largo Middle, both in Largo, would open International Baccalaureate programs. Even if the school district doesn’t receive the federal grant, it could proceed with plans to open the IB programs because of money given to school districts each year by the state for every student who passes an IB examination or graduates with an IB diploma, Lawrence said.

The five-year plan not only presents more opportunities to students but also could draw high-performing students to schools with little economic, social and racial diversity, said Superintendent Michael Grego. The grant targets schools that could benefit from becoming more racially and economically diverse.

“These are programs that might get a student to move from here to there to diversify a school. We need more of that,” Grego said.

The overall vision is for every school, from elementary through high school, to have a regional feeder pattern where students can continue studying in their choice of program, from engineering magnets to the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate programs.

The school district already has begun chipping away at that goal. Four new middle school magnet programs will open next school year — a pre-Cambridge program at Pinellas Park Middle School, a Leadership Conservatory of the Arts and pre-Cambridge program at Tarpon Springs Middle School, an Engineering Gateway to Technology program at Azalea Middle School and another engineering middle school program based at East Lake High School. Those programs, as well as the new Kings Highway and Gulf Beaches elementary Centers for Innovation and Digital Learning, are meeting their capacities for their inaugural classes for the upcoming year, Lawrence said.

In 2014, 7,331 students applied to a district application program, up from 6,552 in 2013. Of those, 5,308 got a spot in a program, an increase over last year’s 4,768 but not enough to keep up with demand.

While the new magnet programs could be a big attraction for students, school board member Linda Lerner said she hopes the board continues to focus on ensuring students at every school have equal access to STEM, arts and other enrichment programs.

“I don’t want to create a tiered culture where we see one school as better than the other,” Lerner said.

Earlier this year, the school district was ranked as the 19th best school district in America for parental choice programs by the nonprofit research group the Brookings Institute, mainly for its magnet programs. The school district also recently was selected by the nonprofit Magnet Schools of America to be one of five nationwide to pilot a new certification process that recognizes nationally certified magnet “schools of excellence,” which meet a rigorous set of criteria, Lawrence said. The schools that will try to meet those benchmarks are Douglas L. Jamerson Jr. Elementary School, Kings Highway Elementary Magnet School, John Hopkins Middle School and Boca Ciega High School.

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At James B. Sanderline IB World School, a K-8 school that received funding from the magnet school grant several years ago, teachers have created an environment that draws students “from all backgrounds,” said Principal Denise Miller. Currently, 66 students attend Sanderline’s IB program.

“When you start a program like this it requires a lot more work than teachers are usually required to do, but once they understand what it means for children and their families you can sell it really well,” Miller said.

School district officials also have identified Belleair, Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo, Melrose and Sandy Lane elementaries as possible locations for future magnet programs.

“If you look back at the years when we had racial ratios to meet we had a much more diverse population and (it) was more of a level playing field,” said school board member Peggy O’Shea. “I’m not saying there won’t be struggling students no matter what, but there was less of a burden for each school and overall it’s a better environment for all kids.”

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