Ultimately we take out what we put in, and our involvement has a real impact.
If you have kids – or plan to have kids – in St. Petersburg, I’m your new favorite person.
Why? Because I’m about to clarify what you really need to know when it comes to navigating our not-as-confusing-as-you-think-it-is system of choosing a public school. Planning on private school? Reading this could save you from spending Ivy League tuition on elementary school.
For parents of preschoolers, there’s a lot of anxiety out there about Pinellas County’s “school choice” system. We’re told that if you don’t “win” the school choice lottery, you have to pay for private school. The system says “you can go to any school you want.” Unfortunately, that leaves hundreds of families vying for limited spaces in a few magnet/fundamental schools. If you don’t get your lottery pick, you are still guaranteed a spot in your neighborhood school, which – contrary to popular belief – does not mean a school with maps of the Soviet Union and the same Apple IIe computer you used in third grade.
These neighborhood schools are wonderful. My son attends North Shore Elementary in St. Pete (soon my daughter will, too). If you believe the state grading system based on two days of testing and considers children with special needs to be a detriment, North Shore is considered a “C” school.
We’ve had an “A+” experience. Just a few weeks into his public school career, my son’s young teacher recognized that he could use extra help and signed him up for FREE after-school tutoring. Public schools have the tools to meet the needs of kids with every exceptionality and talent from spectrum disorders, to art, music and math. At no extra cost. And after school he can sign up for yoga, Spanish, dance, theater, soccer, science, math, or the YMCA.
Your involvement can make your neighborhood school experience great. In volunteering at my son’s school, I’ve gotten to know the teachers and staff. Obviously, not every family has time for this, and that’s okay. I’ve learned that it just takes a few involved parents to make an impact for every student.
So, I’ve hit you with a lot of information. What do you do?
Tour some schools. Do it during the day if you can. Visit the magnets and fundamentals, and be sure to visit your zoned school down the street. Proximity to a school is really a wonderful thing. Most important: Talk to the parents who are there now. How much can you really learn from peeking into a classroom for five minutes, or looking at the music room? Not enough.
- Tour. (It’s worth mentioning again.)
- If there’s a magnet or fundamental you like, sign up for the lottery. But have a backup plan.
- If you don’t get that choice, check out your neighborhood school. It’s probably great. Ignore the school “grades.” They are misleading.
- If you don’t like what you see in your zoned school, you can ask for a “special assignment” to any school that isn’t quite full.
- Get involved. Teachers will tell you that the most important element of an individual child’s success is the level of parental involvement.
It’s easy to sit back and complain about the lack of funding for our schools. In the face of these challenges, I’m impressed by what I’ve seen and heard from our school leadership. We’ll always wish our teachers had higher pay, better supply budgets and smaller classes. Ultimately we take out what we put in, and our involvement has a real impact.
The good news is that when I talk to parents from schools all over the city – magnet, neighborhood, fundamental or private – they are generally happy with their choice.
Stop stressing and approach this process knowing that no matter what happens, the outcome will be good.
Jonathan Kile has held lofty titles such as Newspaper Delivery Boy, Telemarketer, Door to Door Salesman, Assistant Director, Sales Representative, and Lubrication Specialist (for real). Today he is a writer, father, and PTA board member. His family’s summer travel adventure will be chronicled at dontmakemeturnthisvanaround.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.