An Arizona mother camped out for three days to enroll her child in Chandler Traditional Academy, saying it was worth it to get her child into this public school known for back-to-basics and high test scores.
Chandler Unified School District Director of Community Relations Terry Locke said while last week’s focus was on just one district school, 14,000 students attend the Chandler district’s 42 schools through open enrollment.
Twenty years after the Arizona Legislature authorized open enrollment, charter schools, and three tax-credit programs, Arizona parents have many options to choose the school that best fits their children.
National School Choice Week, Jan. 26 to Feb. 1, focuses on all those options from public district and charter schools to private schools, online learning, and homeschooling. This year, there will be 5,500 events nationwide, including a whistle-stop train tour that starts Wednesday in Newark, stops in 13 cities including Tucson, and ends in San Francisco.
“School choice really does mean that now,” said Keri Milliken, principal at Tri-City College Prep High School, a charter school in Prescott. “If you’ve got something in particular you’re passionate about, or want to go into a certain career choice you can focus more on that direction.”
While promoters put the heaviest emphasis on charter and private school choice, Arizona school districts are jumping on board to promote the many choices and unique learning environments they offer. School Choice Week coincides with the time of year when many districts schedule parent information nights, start accepting variance forms for open enrollment for the coming school year and begin to register children for kindergarten.
At the Experience Phoenix Union High School Expo from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25 at Phoenix College, prospective students and their families will learn about what each of Phoenix Union High School District’s 16 schools offer, extra-curriculars, career and technical education, and can register for school.
“There will be break-out sessions for students and parents with a panel of current students discussing the high school experience,” said Craig Pletenik, PUHSD community relations manager. “The first 2,000 eighth graders will receive a backpack, lanyard, and a photo I.D. as a ‘Future’ Spartan, Mustang, etc., which will allow them to get into high school activities this spring for free.”
Last year, 160 school choice events took place in Arizona, including a pancake brunch in Williams, a speech by former Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction and school choice proponent Lisa Graham Keegan to students in Surprise, and an event at Northwest YMCA’s youth center in Tucson, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
So what should parents consider when seeking the school that best fits their child?
“Know your child, and be honest about who your child is,” said Elie Gaines, who has built a business as a school search consultant for preschool through 12th grade with her company All Schools Considered. “Look at where your child’s strengths and talents are, but also where their challenges and needs are.”
Parents should consider school accreditation or licensing, program philosophy, curriculum and instructional approaches, teacher qualifications, teacher-student interactions, class size, student-teacher ratio, travel distance from home, school policies, parent involvement, and timelines for application and registration.
“We want to create a path to get their child where they want to be for high school or college, and consider financial planning for the long term,” Gaines said.
Also consider how well the child and the family fit in with the school’s culture, ask how the school secures their campus, and examine how they support children in need with behavior issues.
“Ultimately, the decision needs to be where is my child going to thrive,” Gaines said. “If the child, family and school believe it’s the best fit for the child, then the child is more likely to succeed.”
Families seek new schools for many reasons, including relocation, shared custody, economic factors, medical needs, learning challenges, and a fresh start.
“I’m a true believer in school choice as a way for children to succeed,” Gaines said. “It’s not to be taken lightly. There is a lot of time and effort that goes into the decision.”
To ease children’s transition to a new school, parents must back up their choice with their words and actions and include their child in the process, Gaines said.
Elementary students can tour parents’ top two choices in schools, attend open house or back to school events, and meet the teacher. High school students can research what schools have to serve their needs, attend classes for a day, then talk to parents about where they felt most comfortable and why, Gaines said.
In Arizona, 87.68 percent of the 1,042,840 students attended district public schools in 2011-12, and 12.31 percent attended charter schools, according to the Arizona Department of Education’s 2011-12 Annual Report of the Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction. The 2012-13 report is not available yet.
Arizona charter schools, most of which operate independently of school districts and are publicly funded, and have grown from 51 authorized in 1994 to 522 in operation in 2011-12, according to the Superintendent’s report.
As choice has increased, schools have responded by creating specialized academic programs.
Tri-City College Prep offers dual-enrollment college classes to get students accustomed to the rigor of college courses, help them succeed their first year of college and eventually graduate college, Milliken said.
“Phoenix Union High School began implementing magnet programs in the early 1980s, providing a wide range of instructional programs to our students even before charter schools came on the scene,” Superintendent Kent Scriber said. “What we’re doing now is a continuation of what we began in the 1980s with our law magnet, our aerospace magnet, our medical professions magnet, and our fine arts magnet.”
“We’ve augmented the offerings with Biosciences High School, Franklin Police and Fire High School, International Baccalaureate programs at two campuses and career and technical programs at Metro Tech,” Scribner said. “We offer students a wide range of choice all within the framework of increased rigor and college and career preparation.”