Special Report: Where have all the children gone? Part 3 of the 3-day series talks about how the future of East Valley school districts depends on their ability to compete and to attract the fastest-growing student population, Hispanic children.
Part 3 of a 3-day series
East Valley school districts have learned lately what their economics instructors have been teaching for decades: More supply and less demand intensify competition.
That axiom holds true for districts operating under the rules of open enrollment, where students can opt to travel elsewhere each day to attend a more desirable school.
|GRAPHIC: Click to view out-of-state enrollment numbers|
As the number of available students decreases, capturing out-of-district kids becomes more critical to each school district's future stability.
Some school districts facing enrollment declines have focused heavily on school choice and out-of-district marketing efforts, while others are just now sensing the need to attract more students from neighboring districts.
Meanwhile, some experts say school districts must position themselves as the best place for Hispanic children to succeed, because of the clear advantages of attracting the Valley's fastest-growing student population. Capturing Hispanic enrollment could ensure stable and plentiful funding in the foreseeable future.
After about a decade of explosive growth in the East Valley, half of the 10 school districts here are now experiencing declining enrollment. Several of the other districts are anticipating a dramatic slowdown in the rate they were once growing.
Recent turmoil with the economy and housing market has exacerbated problems for schools by making it more difficult to predict how many students will walk through their doors.
Schools are funded largely on a per pupil basis in Arizona, and planning for how many of them will enroll is vital not only for accurate budgeting but also for making sure there are enough teachers, books and other resources to go around.
Finding a way to stabilize enrollment in unstable times becomes important for the economic future of the school and its community.
|GRAPHIC: Click to view proposed changes|
Open enrollment is both a problem and a solution.
The Scottsdale Unified School District has been hit by enrollment declines in recent years and has been considering school consolidation in order to address its shrinking student body and growing budgetary needs.
A few years ago, older neighborhoods, mostly in south Scottsdale, experienced an abrupt decline in students when many apartment complexes were converted to condominiums.
"According to an ASU study, we may have lost 1,400 kids in that," said Scottsdale district Superintendent John Baracy.
But the district actually had an increase in its enrollment of about 1 percent this year over last year, and Baracy said that was not a surprise.
"What has affected our enrollment in a positive way and helped us stem declines is our open enrollment," Baracy said. The state's open enrollment law allows students to attend public schools in districts other than the ones in which they live, if there is room.
Scottsdale schools have gone from about 1,000 students coming in from other districts a few years ago to more than 2,700 this year.
Schools near the borders of the district do especially well at attracting students.
"We have good schools. We have a good reputation," Baracy said. "It's all about location, location, location. Chapparal, Arcadia, Desert Mountain all do well with open enrollment."
|INTERACTIVE: Click to view enrollment changes in E.V. schools|
As that number increases, it becomes more difficult to sustain enrollment, and so district administrators are looking at ways to maximize the potential to bring in students through targeted marketing.
One group they've been specifically eyeing is parents who work in Scottsdale but don't live there.
"We have something like 240,000 jobs in Scottsdale and only about 220,000 people who live here," Baracy said, so it seems natural to try to entice those workers to enroll their children in Scottsdale schools.
Baracy's ideas on using the open enrollment laws to reverse enrollment declines have been put to practice in other school districts, such as Tempe Elementary, where he was once superintendent, and are still in use today.
The Tempe district, which draws about 2,000 kids into its boundaries through open enrollment, is now looking at ways to capitalize on big employers such as Arizona State University to find new students.
Tempe is losing its economic diversity and has been working to regulate its enrollment through planning and providing parents with school choice. The district converted one elementary school from a kindergarten-through-fifth-grade school to a kindergarten-through-eighth-grade campus, created a traditional academy, and this year, opened a technology academy.
"Tempe is changing drastically, especially in the downtown area," said Christine Busch, associate superintendent. "A lot of our low-income housing no longer exists. It's being replaced by high rises."
Tempe officials have decided that while they don't want to continue to lose students, they don't want to grow to an unmanageable size either. That's why a group of community members working to develop a strategic plan for the district has said that enrollment should remain steady at about 13,000. For them, it is now about the economics of enrollment retention.
"Some districts in the state say we just want to keep growing and growing and growing," Busch said. "We're landlocked. We're not like Chandler, Queen Creek, where we have this land that goes on and on. For us it's about where do we want to put our resources and how big do we want to be. We never want declining enrollment, but we do want to maintain enough enrollment to be fiscally responsible."
Creating their own alternative schools is one way school districts have responded to increased competition in Arizona's education marketplace.
Arizona lawmakers put school choice options in motion in the mid-1990s by passing laws that allowed open enrollment and the creation of charter schools, public schools operated by private owners. A few years later, lawmakers added reforms such as scholarship tax credits and limited vouchers to enable more children to attend private schools.
Charter schools in the East Valley reported a total of 16,765 students enrolled in 2003. Five years later, that number rose to 27,047.
But so far, enrollment growth in public school districts has outpaced the creation of new choice schools for Arizona families, according to the Goldwater Institute, a public policy think tank that advocates for more school choices.
Terry Locke, spokesman for the Chandler Unified School District, said Chandler has been fortunate to have areas of growth within its boundaries so that it is not losing students to other districts.
But the Chandler district estimates that between 5 percent and 10 percent of the students in its boundaries attend charter or private schools or are home-schooled, even though the dozen or so of those schools located in the area draw students regionally.
"There's no doubt, though, that if a charter school here is full, it's with some of our kids," Locke said.
Because they didn't want to lose too many kids to these options, the district opened what are called Chandler Traditional Academy schools - four in the district - for parents looking for options.
The schools require uniforms, teach the rigorous Spalding method of reading, and offer a structured environment. The district has about 3,000 students enrolled in its four academies.
So in a sense, Locke said, Chandler created some of its own decline at certain schools by offering its own alternatives.
Not all districts are looking to open enrollment to be the big fix for their enrollment troubles, though.
Debra Duvall, superintendent of the Mesa Unified School District, said there are about 3,000 students open-enrolled in Mesa who come from other districts. They are not all concentrated at alternative schools, but scattered throughout the district.
"We do want to be able to offer choice," she said. "Do we do that in order to take kids from other school districts? No, that's not our purpose."
Duvall said 30 years ago a school like the Franklin Academy, with a traditional and academically rigid curriculum, would have drawn students from all over the region. But now most school districts offer some sort of special content-based curriculum, so the draw is not as enticing.
Duvall said when you talk about open enrollment in terms of bringing in students from other sources, then where are these other sources?
"The assumption is that they're just not coming to Mesa schools, that they're going somewhere else instead. But that's not the issue. There are fewer kids," she said.
So in Mesa, she said, the focus is on serving the families who already live within the school boundaries and giving them the choices they ask for.
Rich Crandall, the district's governing board president, said Mesa needs to both compete with other districts through open enrollment and be ready to downsize to respond to shrinking student bodies.
"We're going to compete hard with programs and rigor," he said. "We just got the AIMS (Arizona's Instrument to Measure Standards) scores back, and the Mesa Academy kicked tail." The academy is a traditional school that draws students through open enrollment from within and outside the school district. "At the same time, we have to eliminate expense, and some of that may be done through school closings," he said.
New student populations are fueled by two factors: immigration and birth rates.
Yet, despite the competitive environment created by open enrollment, experts say schools have yet to serve well the one group of students that could best ensure any district's future success: the growing Hispanic population.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, foreign-born individuals who immigrated to the United States between 2000 and 2006 numbered an estimated 7.6 million. Most of the new residents came from Latin American countries, especially Mexico.
In 2010, Hispanics are projected to account for about 15.5 percent of the U.S. population, and by 2050 that number could reach nearly one-quarter of the total population.
"In other words, the size and growth of the Hispanic population will continue to have an impact on American life - the schools, the economy, the culture, and the politics - for years to come," wrote Richard R. Verdugo, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association, in a report on the status of Hispanics in education.
Over the past decade and a half in the U.S., the number of births of whites has declined steeply, while the number of births in almost all other racial/ethnic groups has risen, wrote Jane Lawler Dye in a U.S. Census report released in August.
"Hispanic women aged 40 to 44 had an average of 2.3 births and were the only group that exceeded the fertility level required for natural replacement of the U.S. population," Dye wrote.
For these reasons, demographers project Hispanic children will make up a huge chunk the majority, in many cases of public school enrollment in coming years.
"Today, white non-Hispanics make up a shrinking proportion of enrollments and graduates, and this trend will continue," wrote David Longanecker, president of the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education in a report released earlier this year titled "Knocking at the College Door."
"Meanwhile, the numbers of students from other groups - including some that have not been served well historically by our school systems or our colleges and universities (especially Hispanics) - are on the upswing. Failure to more fully address the educational needs of our rapidly growing minority populations threatens our nation's future."
One Arizona program trying to address those needs is Beat the Odds, part of the work done by the Center for the Future of Arizona, led by Lattie Coor, a longtime Arizona educator and former president of Arizona State University.
The program's director, Marjorie Kaplan, said making sure Latino children get a quality education should be a priority in Arizona.
"This population is growing," Kaplan said. "If we want to succeed in our area - the Phoenix area - in the state, in the nation, we can't really afford to waste the resources of a large part of our population. One of goals of education is that everyone becomes a productive citizen.
"If we don't get them ready, they become a drag on the system. They end up needing to draw community support, the crime rates rise, the national productivity can go down. Sometimes it's hard for people to see down that road."
Beat the Odds works with schools where many students do not speak English. She said people in the community at large may complain that it is expensive and time-consuming to do this work, but she believes it is getting more efficient and programs such as hers are trying to make a science of it - applying data-driven approaches that get results.
"As we work out ways to educate the Latino population, as we see what works and implement those kinds of approaches, it will be easier," she said.
Some experts say a lot is at stake. Hispanic students will be the majority-minority within the decade in some places and still, their success rate in public schools is not good."
While the high school completion rate among Hispanics increased between 1970 and 2004, it still remains lower than the high school completion rates among whites, according to statistics from the National Education Association.
In 1970, 32.1 percent of the Hispanic population age 25 years or older had completed high school or more, while among the white population age 25 or older, 54.5 percent had completed high school or more.
By 2004, the Hispanic completion rate had risen to 58 percent, but Hispanics still had the highest dropout rate - 24 percent among the three major race-ethnic groups - Hispanics, whites and blacks.
Tracking dropouts is important because research has shown that those without a high school diploma earn far less than graduates, and still less than college graduates over their lifetimes.
Mesa Unified, Arizona's largest school system with about 72,000 students, serves thousands of Hispanic students.
According to Duvall, Mesa has been experiencing significant declines in enrollment in recent years, including losses at schools across the district last year. But this year, enrollment declines have been more concentrated in schools in west and central Mesa the most Latino-populated areas of the city.
"In schools that had a 4 percent drop in enrollment or more, almost without exception those are schools with children who come primarily from Spanish-speaking homes," she said.
So, despite what the demographers are saying, the Hispanic population in Mesa schools has not, at least for this year, increased as quickly as projected. A new employer sanctions law and several illegal immigrant sweeps have been cited, anecdotally, as reasons, but there are no statistics to prove this is true.
"My sense is that most of the schools losing kids are on the west side, along the Broadway corridor," said Mesa school board member Michael Hughes. "You can deduce pretty simply that it must be having some impact."
That's not to say Mesa is not serving the demographic and looking for new ways to better educate them. Duvall said she believes the district has an excellent English Language Learners department and is following a state task force's recommendations for teaching English.
She said succeeding in the classroom takes the combination of a high-quality teacher who is an expert in his or her subject and cares deeply about the students.
"It takes more than the willingness of the teacher," she said.
Beyond the classroom, Mesa schools try to create friendly environments for families in the schools where they know there are a lot of English language learners.
"We staff the offices with people who speak the language and understand the culture," Duvall said. "We try to let families know their presence is welcome."
Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo, who sits on the education committee of the Mesa Association of Hispanic Citizens and works for both the Mesa school district and Mesa Community College, said it's vital that schools attract and keep Hispanic families.
"The experts are right," Villanueva-Saucedo said. "That is the demographic that is growing. It's in everybody's self-interest to take a look at going after that."
At the same time, she said, it's important to keep in mind that this is not just one solid block of people, but a group ranging from fourth-, fifth- and sixth-generation individuals to those who are newly immigrated, don't speak English or who may not be legal residents.
So, she said, it would behoove school districts, and any institution for that matter, to look at new and creative ways of reaching out to Hispanics.
"The traditional Hispanic family has a value of keeping alive traditions that is very important, so schools need to think about that and look at making family a part of the conversation," she said. "It's about communication."
Generally, Hispanic families in the East Valley view the schools as a haven, Villanueva-Saucedo said.
"There are little things that can be tweaked," she said. "We're not changing our educational function. We're not talking about some kind of radical revolution."