Schools in marketing battle for students

Posted on February 20, 2005 | Type: Op-Ed | Author: Daryl James
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Kyrene Elementary School District opened its doors last week at every campus and invited prospective customers inside.

At C.I. Waggoner Elementary School in Tempe, colorful posters in the multipurpose room showed off the school's standardized test scores, while teachers in every classroom displayed student projects and fielded questions from a steady stream of guests.

Waggoner principal Ken Helling said events such as "Experience Kyrene Night" did not exist 11 years ago when he started as an educator - but open enrollment laws and increased competition from charter schools in Arizona have forced school districts to market themselves aggressively.

"They have to compete now because they're no longer the only game in town," said Vicki Murray, education analyst at the Goldwater Institute in Phoenix.

About 82,000 Arizona students - nearly one in 13 - attended 495 charter schools in 2004. Just eight years ago, the state had only 146 charter schools serving about 13,500 students.

Only California has come close to matching that growth in charter school enrollment.

Meanwhile in 2004, an additional 20,000 Arizona students attended home school and about 45,000 were enrolled in private schools. Many other students crossed district boundaries and attended traditional public schools outside their own neighborhoods.

Overall, district schools served about 930,000 students in 2004 - about 87 percent of the state's total - but the government's market share in education has been slipping.

Murray said that trend will continue.

"We'll know when the market is saturated when there are no longer waiting lists and parents don't have to drive an hour round-trip to take their children to the school of their choice," she said.

Murray said one sign of gaps in the education marketplace is the recent explosion in home-school registrations.

Maricopa County records show the number of children taught at home jumped from 6,500 in 1998 to more than 10,500 as of last week - a 62 percent increase in seven years. Murray said the parents of many of these children avoid both public and private schools because they believe none match their families' academic standards and values.

"There aren't enough schools out there that are meeting the children's particular needs," she said.

Michael Block, co-founder of BASIS Scottsdale charter middle school, said one segment of the population that remains underserved is middle-class families seeking accelerated academic programs for their children.

BASIS Scottsdale students come from as far away as south Tempe for the challenge of the BASIS curriculum, which produces the highest scores in the state on the Stanford 9 Achievement Test.

"There's no other place where you can study Mandarin or economics in eighth grade," Block said. "This is just a different level."

Block said his next venture will be the David Ricardo School, a private high school that will open in September at the BASIS Scottsdale campus with about 30 students and expand to its own site in 2006. Block said the school eventually will make the prestigious Brophy and Xavier college preparatory schools in Phoenix appear mediocre.

"Those are good schools but not great," he said.

About one in 10 students nationwide attend private schools, but the National Center for Education Statistics reports that private school enrollment in Arizona has leveled off in recent years at about 3 percent or 4 percent of total enrollment.

Nevertheless, Block said a market exists for quality private schools.

"I really think that Scottsdale and the East Valley are underserved with private schools," he said. "The area is lagging for high-level education."

Daniel Scoggin, headmaster at Tempe Preparatory Academy charter school, has also seen the demand for highlevel education. His school achieves the top high school scores in the state on Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards.

To help accommodate families on the school's perpetual waiting lists, Scoggin announced plans last month to replicate the Tempe Preparatory model at 12 sites across the Valley by 2012. A second site opened last year in northeast Phoenix, and a third campus will open in August in Chandler.

School districts have also responded to the market demand for high-end schools.

Desert Mountain High School in the Scottsdale Unified School District launched a rigorous International Baccalaureate diploma program in 1998 to match the existing East Valley program at Chandler High School in the Chandler Unified School District.

Meanwhile, the advanced diploma program will debut in August at Westwood High School in the Mesa Unified School District and within the next few years at Cactus Shadows High School in the Cave Creek Unified School District.

Many East Valley school districts have also launched back-to-basics elementary schools and full-day kindergarten programs to satisfy the demands of customers.

Matthew Ladner, director of state projects at the Alliance for School Choice in Phoenix, said school districts have taken a huge step in the right direction - and he credits school choice.

"The more competition faced by schools, the higher their students perform on standardized tests," he said.

Sen. John Huppenthal, RChandler, said last week at the state Capitol that the expansion of school choice laws in Arizona will lead to a revolution in education within the next decade. He said the old system of government schools dictating to parents how to educate their children will soon disappear.

"The American approach is a thousand different paths and a thousand different values," Huppenthal said. "Competition will blow away the centralized, one-size-fits-all approach."

What are charter schools?
"Charter schools are independent public schools of choice designed and operated by educators, parents, community leaders and educational entrepreneurs, and given broad flexibility and freedom from regulatory constraints in exchange for public accountability for student achievement." Source: 2004 report on Arizona charter schools from the Progressive Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

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