“We actually looked at a couple of homes in the Coronado neighborhood, but we wanted to live in the home we do now,” Chan Braithwaite said. “So we looked into the open enrollment possibility, and they walked us through that process, and we were able to do it pretty smoothly.”
The Braithwaites, who now have a second son, Dallin, in the program at Coronado, are just one of the thousands of families who take advantage of Arizona’s open enrollment laws, which give parents a choice in where to send their children for school. With districts having opened registration this month for the 2020-21 school year, now is the time for many parents to make choices.
School boundaries still exist as a starting place for parents with a neighborhood school, but school officials say they embrace competing for students under open enrollment, now a part of Arizona’s educational culture after 25 years as state law. Open enrollment accounts for anywhere from 22%-41% of the student populations from the districts that serve Gilbert.
“My core belief is: I don't care where you live,” Gilbert Public Schools Superintendent Shane McCord said. “I don't care where you're from. Every child needs to be educated. So why not us?”
As a result, schools look to differentiate themselves, often programmatically, officials said.
But curriculum is not the sole factor when parents make their choices. Everything from extracurricular programs to family needs may play a role.
For their part, schools have learned to manage the uncertainty that comes with open enrollment, officials said. The process has implications in all areas of school management.
Offering quality programs
In 1994, when the state introduced charter schools and passed open enrollment laws, districts knew they were going to have to compete for students, officials said.
“We really acknowledged that 20-something years ago, when we said we could see the handwriting on the wall, and it was with a dark black marker,” said Terry Locke, community relations director for Chandler USD. “We had to really embrace that—that we're going to win at this. We're going to be successful. We're going to build programs that attract families.”
The stakes are high as state funding relies on a complex formula to which enrollment figures are central. Maintenance and operations base funding is $4,806 per elementary student and $5,262 per high school student before adjustments.
Soon after the laws passed, that meant establishing what Locke called “back-to-basics” schools, which evolved into traditional academies. Those academies tend stress core subjects and traditional curriculum models and may employ things like a dress code. Each of the districts serving Gilbert has a traditional academy in town.
Chandler USD has also responded to demographic changes in the district by repurposing some schools—not just into traditional academies, but also to gifted education academies; such a switch will take place at Weinberg Elementary School next year.
In Higley USD, officials talk about offering families a “boutique” educational experience that responds to what the community wants.
“All of our schools are trying to do unique things that draw families to them,” said Dawn Foley, K-12 educational services assistant superintendent for HUSD. “A lot of times this comes from the leadership and the teachers in the schools who hear immediately from their community: this is a desire, this is a passion. We're not that large of a district, so when there is community interest and need anywhere, you begin hearing it.”
As a result, Higley has programs with accelerated pathways that push students ahead in their education or their dual-language immersion, as with Coronado’s Mandarin classroom.
“It's not just about offering [a program]; it's about ensuring a high-quality program that is aligned to what it is families want,” Foley said. “Just having one without that high-caliber quality is not the same, and that's important.”
Families’ varied reasons
Programs alone, however, do not account for families’ choices, officials said.
“All those programs serve a segment of the population,” GPS’ McCord said. “But I also believe, more than anything, it’s the culture; it’s the feel. It's the camaraderie on a campus that draws people there as well as some of the performing arts and athletics.”
Indeed, that "camaraderie" was a factor for Kellie Libke, a Mesa resident who, when it came time for her child to move on from a Gilbert elementary charter school, enrolled her son at Cooley Middle School.
The “moms network” turned Libke on to Cooley Middle School, where she has found the supportive environment she sought for Matthew as he entered seventh grade, she said.
“Especially being a public school, we were worried,” she said. “Was he babied too much at this wonderful little charter school? Is he going to survive in a public school? And they have made that [transition] seamless for us.”
But athletics, fine arts and other extracurricular activities count, too, officials noted—for students and parents. Foley recalled one student talking about how a surf and wakeboarding club at Higley High School has given him reason to want to go to school.
When Gilbert Public Schools proposed school boundary changes last year, some families objected about their neighborhood school changing from Highland High School, which has high test scores and standout arts programs. The district pointed toward open enrollment to assuage fears.
“In our district we also have some very well-rounded students in a lot of different areas,” McCord said. “Some of our performing arts, our bands, our orchestras, our choirs, are second to none, and that attracts people.”
Higley and Chandler have year-round school calendars that can have an effect. Convenience is another reason.
“Sometimes it can be as simple as a grandmother lives two blocks away and ‘I want them to walk to grandma's house after school. It takes care of my child care,’” Locke said.
Test scores and school grades are another marker often cited.
Schools manage process
Open enrollment brings with it an element of unpredictability for schools to know how many students they will have. Opening schools for registration late in the fall helps, but the districts all accept open enrollment throughout the year.
“I think we do a pretty good job of predicting, and we're always real happy when we have projected too few [students],” McCord said. “That means more students are coming in. On the negative side of that, now we're hiring people late, and that's hard.”
Foley said HUSD monitors potential enrollment carefully so they are not surprised. Furthermore, the districts typically report a high level of student retention, so enrollment swings are not drastic. Changes usually take place at the transition points: elementary school to junior high, and junior high to high school, Foley said.
“Typically, once a school attracts a student, they remain at the school,” CUSD’s Locke said. “That’s one of the reasons for the extra efforts on preschool and kindergarten marketing. Exceptions to retention tend to be related to a new school opening closer to home—district or charter. New programs create student movement.”
With enrollment projections in hand and working in concert with the budget, schools can begin to project their needs for teachers in early spring. Principals, then, are eager to get on with hiring in a competitive market for teachers, McCord said.
The logistics become trickier when schools add programs to attract students. Foley said long-term planning for space and staffing is critical.
“You don’t want to start [programs just for them] to die,” she said.
The planning requires everyone on the team, Foley said.
“You need your transportation director; you need your food services person,” Foley said. “You need each person with their set of expertise to come to figure out, 'How do we take this from an idea to successful implementation?' ... It means a lot of different people are involved in seeking how to make this successful and quality.”
That, Foley said, is important in an enrollment market with charter schools well-established in the landscape.
“It's competition, and ... it is about awareness and information so that families can make the right choice,” Foley said. “Where to send your child is a real personal conversation for families.”