Last year, the Mesa Unified School District lost the equivalent of an elementary school’s enrollment — about 700 students.
Most went to one of the city’s 38 charter schools. This school year, which starts today, the district is fighting to change that, through new schools and programs aimed at recruiting — and retaining — its schoolchildren.
The governing board recently approved spending $50,000 with public relations firm E.B. Lane to hone its image.
Neighboring school districts do their public relations in-house, but Superintendent Debra Duvall said a professional firm will bring a fresh perspective to her schools and create a consistent message.
The district also is working to create new schools, including the now-open Crossroads School, to target different student populations. For example, Crossroads was designed for students who are not thriving in large high schools or who have fallen behind in their credits. Another school is on the way for high-achievers who want more advanced coursework.
The district has discovered it needs to offer families these choices to keep them from leaving for charter schools.
“It’s not competition in that we’re seeing who can get the most kids,” Duvall said. “It’s probably competition in that we try to be sure we provide an array of programs to meet their needs — so they don’t feel the need to go someplace else.”
Students have been leaving the district for charters for years, but in the past, the city’s growth more than made up for those losses. Now, neighborhoods are becoming built-out, so the district is beginning to feel the loss.
“Regardless of what charter school and regardless of the quality of that school, you’re going to have curiosity and some kids will go there,” said governing board member Rich Crandall. “Even if it’s 50 kids, that’s money for the 50 kids that goes with them. You don’t want to see that.”
The state funds school districts on a per-pupil basis.
In the 2004-05 school year, 2,054 children left the district for charters. Many headed for alternative-type charter schools such as Sun Valley High School and Pinnacle High School.
Paul Wright, the district’s new director of development, worked for seven years at a charter school company, and knows the district needs to act fast, first by determining where these students are beginning to fall behind, then tailoring programs to help them.
“We need to develop better strategies to catch them at the beginning,” he said. “In this highly charged atmosphere of choice and competition, if it’s not happening here, (families) will find someone else who is going to take care of their needs.”
Part of the problem, Wright said, was that up until this year, students who weren’t thriving in Mesa’s large high schools didn’t have options. They had to wait until they had fallen behind or misbehaved before they could go to the alternative schools.
Instead, many teens turned to places like Sun Valley.
“We get a lot of students who have to help pay the rent. We also have a lot of students who are on their own. They don’t have the luxury of being able to go to school during the day,” said Joe Procopio, school leader at Sun Valley, which offers classes until 9 p.m.
The school also provides on-site day-care for teen parents —serving as many as 80 children throughout some days.
Charter schools, he said, just have more flexibility to adapt to individual student needs than large school districts have — a fact that attracts many families from large Mesa high schools.
Isabel Calleros-Gomez knew Westwood High School was not the best place for her son, Isaiah, halfway through his freshman year.
“He was bored to death having to go to school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and there’s the other things . . . gangrelated things, social cliques, temptation all around as far as drugs or getting into trouble,” she said.
So Isaiah headed to Pinnacle, where he takes computer-based classes in the morning, and is done by lunchtime. From there, he goes to Queen of Peace Catholic Church, where he works full time making $11 an hour with full benefits.
But Calleros-Gomez admits charters aren’t for everyone. Her sociable
daughter, Shauntelly, longed for the prom and football games of a large high school — so she returned to Westwood from another charter school, and graduated in 2003.
School-choice proponents have long insisted that competition would force school districts to step up services. In Mesa, that appears to be at least partially correct, though Duvall pointed out that the district has been offering choices — like Montessori programs and distance learning — for years.
A new kindergarten through ninthgrade school, informally being called the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, will open next year at the intersection of Power and Brown roads. It will be for high-performing students with a college preparatory focus, which Crandall compared to Tempe Preparatory Academy, a popular charter school.