March 28, 2005
East Valley parents searching for a school to send their children frequently end up in the office of Charlie Santa Cruz.
The Gilbert High School principal said parents who live outside his school’s attendance area often arrive on campus and interview him like a job applicant. They want to know about his school’s academics, athletics, fine arts programs and even the racial diversity.
"They actually engage in interviewing the principal," Santa Cruz said. "During the last eight or 10 years, that shopping around has been much more prevalent."
For many families, "school choice" in Arizona means charter schools, private schools or homeschooling as alternatives to traditional public schools.
But an increasing number of families also are looking to school districts for options: A public school outside their neighborhood or even in another district.
East Valley educators say they have seen an explosion in these open-enrollment applications in recent years.
Last year, more than 400 students enrolled at Gilbert High under the state’s liberal openenrollment law adopted in 1994. Many came from other parts of the Gilbert Unified School District, and some traveled from neighboring school districts.
Gilbert High now has reached capacity at about 3,000 students, and Santa Cruz said he must sometimes turn away openenrollment applicants who live outside the district.
"The interviewing process goes both ways," he said.
In the Mesa Unified School District, more than 570 high school students and 2,730 students overall live outside the district. An additional 11,000 students live within the district but attend district schools outside their own neighborhoods.
"Competition is healthy," said Cecilia Johnson, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment in the Tempe Union High School District. "It does force schools to look at their vision and their mission."
Nearly one in three students at Tempe’s McClintock High School lives outside the school’s attendance area, and Johnson cited several reasons.
She said the Peggy Payne Academy for gifted students at McClintock draws more than 100 open-enrollment students from as far away as Paradise Valley. Johnson said one McClintock student changes city buses three times during a daily commute from Phoenix.
McClintock also draws students from Tempe High School two miles away because some families do not like Tempe High’s academic programs or year-round calendar. The calendar will not be an issue next year because the Tempe Union district will have the same calendar at all seven of its campuses starting in August.
Tempe High School, meanwhile, attracted 193 openenrollment students of its own last year — about one in seven students.
Many said they like Tempe High’s cozy campus with 1,400 students. Others come for the renowned nursing program that takes advantage of Tempe St. Luke’s Hospital next door.
Perhaps hundreds more students would choose Desert Vista or Corona del Sol high schools — the two schools in the Tempe Union district with the highest test scores. But those schools are bursting at the seams and no longer accept open-enrollment applicants except under special circumstances.
"The only way to get into those schools is to move into the neighborhood," Johnson said.
Tempe’s Marcos de Niza High School and Scottsdale’s Saguaro High School also attract hundreds of open- enrollment students.
But the East Valley leader in recruiting out-of-area high school students is Higley High School. More than one in three students at that school lives outside the school’s boundaries.
Higley High principal Burnie Hibbard said many of his students come from Queen Creek, Florence and Coolidge looking for a "big" school, while others come from Gilbert, Chandler and Mesa looking for a "small" school. At about 1,200 students, he said many parents find Higley High just right.
Students who live inside a school’s attendance area receive guaranteed admission, and state law requires public schools to enroll other applicants in an equitable manner such as lottery.
"Because we are a public school district, we take all comers regardless of athletic prowess or scholarship or ability or disability," said Tempe Union spokeswoman Nicole Greason. "We take all students."
How to transfer schools
Open enrollment policies vary from district to district but generally are similar. Following are the rules that govern admission of out-of-area students in the Mesa Unified School District:
• The school must have capacity to enroll the student. Principals determine how much capacity exists at each school by March 1 for the following school year.
• Families that submit open enrollment applications prior to the first Friday in February receive priority status and generally are accepted for enrollment.
• Schools notify the parents of students accepted for open enrollment by May 31.
• Families may apply for open enrollment at any time, but if they apply after May 31 they will frequently find themselves on a waiting list.
• Students on a waiting list are prioritized and then selected on a first-come, first-served basis.
• Generally, open enrollment students must provide their own transportation.
Source: Mesa Unified School District