District to limit entry to Buchholz

Published: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 16, 2008 at 12:00 a.m.

Alachua County School Board members put it on the record Tuesday night. They agreed not to rezone the city high schools and they agreed to limit the number of out-of-zone students admitted to Buchholz High School magnet programs to 20 percent or less.

The board had been considering zoning issues and access to the magnet programs recently, drawing the ire of many parents. A large-scale rezoning plan was scrapped earlier this month while officials continued to look for ways to deal with overcrowding in Buchholz. The high school is 200 students over capacity with an enrollment of about 2,245 students.

On Tuesday, Superintendent Dan Boyd outlined a four-part plan for the board that he said could be enacted without a board vote because they are covered by current district policies.

"It will take three years for the board to recognize the effect of what we are doing," Boyd said. The first step of Boyd's plan was to change how zoning exemptions will be handled. Until now, zoning appeals were routed through a zoning office. Boyd said he will direct all exemption requests for Buchholz to go directly to the zoning appeals committee, which includes the superintendent.

The plan also calls for current out-of-zone students attending Buchholz to be grandfathered in until they graduate.

"It's important for us to honor our initial commitment to these students," Boyd said.

Another aspect of Boyd's plan was taken under review by a school district attorney. The idea is to notify developers that all housing developments platted after this month could be zoned for a high school other than Buchholz.

The aspect of the plan that drew more than a dozen parents to podiums to speak out was the part that will limit access to the magnet programs.

Buchholz opened its Academy of Entrepreneurship in 1993 and its Academy of Finance in 1994. Like all other magnet programs in the district, students needed to meet minimum grade-point-average requirements and have teacher recommendations to apply, and those accepted would qualify for transportation to school.

District staff said that 61 percent of the students in the entrepreneurship classes and 57 percent of those in the finance classes are from outside the Buchholz attendance zone.

Students enrolled in the academy must take one academy class during their six class hours. Academy classes are counted as electives and have a maximum capacity of 35 students per class. Beginning in the 2008-2009 school year, Boyd said that if at least 28 Buchholz students enroll for a class, then the remaining seats will be open to students who have been allowed to transfer from other high school zones through a computerized lottery.

Among the nearly two dozen parents and community members who spoke in opposition to limiting access to the academies was Don West. He identified himself as the father of a 21-year-old who graduated from the academy, has nearly completed his bachelor's degree in finance and accounting and will soon be entering graduate school. The West family lived in the Gainesville High School zone, about two miles outside the Buchholz zone.

"My son got his opportunity by going through that program, but if he was trying to get in today, he couldn't," West said. "This board's legacy will be to take the best programs and tear them apart."

Mark Starr, whose two sons attended the academies at Buchholz and who has chaired the advisory board for the academies for the past five years, predicted the plan would end the programs.

Starr said that, of the current 365 students enrolled in the academies, about 45 percent are from Buchholz and 65 percent are from other high school zones.

"If we go through with the plan, it will cut attendance in half," Starr said. "In my opinion, that will end the program. The effect of this decision will be to end the program."

Boyd disputed Starr's prediction.

"This program at Buchholz High school will not fail," Boyd said. "It will continue to flourish."

School board member Ginger Childs noted that some students zoned to attend Buchholz have not been able to get into the magnet programs at the school and now may be likely to enroll under the new plan.

"For those parents whose children have their heart set on entrepreneurship or finance, they have opportunity to apply for the business academy at Loften High School, where we just opened an 18-classroom wing," Childs said.

The decision to limit enrollment to the Buchholz programs comes as students and their parents are considering whether to apply to one of the magnet programs for next fall. Students have until mid-February to file their applications.

Deputy Superintendent Sandra Hollinger's advice was to apply to all the programs a student may be interested in. After the Buchholz lottery, students who have already been accepted at another magnet program would be allowed to change their decision and enroll at Buchholz.

After listening to dozens explain why they opposed the plan, board member Tina Pinkoson raised a concern about why some families were so concerned about getting their children into Buchholz.

"We heard from people who wanted their children to be on the (Buchholz) math team, so they enrolled them in the academy, and we don't allow that in sports," Pinkoson said.

Pinkoson also recalled how difficult it had been to be the parent of a child who did not get accepted into a magnet program they had applied to and wound up at a high school where the child knew almost no one on the first day of classes.

"We in no way want to do anything that is going to hurt your child, and these situations can turn out real well." Pinkoson said. "It's hard to sit and know that we are making people unhappy. Please know that it is not that we don't care."

Board Chairwoman Janie Williams reminded those at the meeting that, "We are trying to do the best that we can with the money that we have."

Childs was the board member who addressed questions about why the board does not build a new high school on the west side of the county to relieve overcrowding and create classroom space for anticipated growth. She said a bare-bones high school would cost about $30 million, while a school with athletic facilities would cost about $50 million.

"We don't have that kind of money, and if that money fell out of the sky for us today, it would take a minimum of five years to design, build and occupy a new school," Childs said. "I don't see any money falling out of the sky."

Karen Voyles can be reached at 352-359-5656 or kvoyles@gmail.com.

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