June 1, 2004
The Chandler Unified School District is buying land for a school that will focus on a more rigorous curriculum than its conventional schools.
The Kyrene Elementary School District has plans to open its first Montessori school this fall, and the Paradise Valley Unified School District is considering starting a fine arts school.
All have one ultimate goal in mind — boost enrollment and funding, and compete more effectively with charter schools. Across the East Valley, school districts are offering alternatives to conventional schools, giving parents choices such as magnet schools that emphasize study in a specific field and "traditional schools" that are stricter in academics and dress code.
Vicki Murray, an education analyst with the Goldwater Institute, said she sees Arizona school districts looking to provide more alternatives as a response to the success and competition of charter schools.
"With the traditional districts opening up other types of schools tells me that charter schools are having a positive impact," she said. "It also shows that district schools are not fragile flowers."
And that’s what is behind the effort to open a second "traditional" campus in Chandler in 2005 at Chandler Heights and Higley roads. A "traditional" school involves more rigorous academics and a dress code.
"There is no question that we see this as a way to compete with the charter schools," said Susan Eissinger, assistant superintendent of instructional services in Chandler. "This answers a question of choice for parents."
Eissinger said the district is opening the second campus because of the success of the first: Chandler Traditional Academy — Liberty Campus, near Chandler Boulevard and 132nd Street.
Don Shelly, the principal at Liberty, said that when the school opened in 2002 it had 220 students. Next year, the school is expected to have 740 students with an additional 50 on a waiting list. About 60 percent of the students at the campus have come from local charter or private schools, he said.
The Kyrene district also has about 50 students on a waiting list for its Montessori program slated to begin this fall at Kyrene del Norte Elementary School near Price and Elliot roads. The district is venturing into Montessori to battle declining enrollment.
Meanwhile, the Scottsdale Unified School District’s incoming superintendent, John Baracy, has pledged to increase enrollment in the district, which has been declining by about 2 percent. Among the possibilities school board members have discussed is opening magnet high schools.
Other attempts to offer alternatives to parents in the East Valley include:
• The Gilbert Unified School District opened the Technology and Leadership Academy, the first standalone U.S. Air Force magnet high school in the nation, last August. The school attracted interest Valleywide.
• The Mesa Unified School District is opening up the Early Childhood Professions Academy for the 2004-05 school year on Country Club Drive between University Drive and Main Street. The school will be a working child-care center where students at least 16 years old can get experience teaching children while doing distance learning from home.
• The Mesa district is also opening its third Montessori school in August at Mendoza Elementary School, 5831 E. McLellan Road.
Drawing students to district schools means additional funding. Districts receive more than $5,200 from federal and state agencies per student.
"We work very hard to keep customers satisfied and don’t want to see them leave the district because of lack of choice," Eissinger said.
- Tribune writer Beth Lucas contributed to this report.