Among the largest school districts in the country, Mesa Unified saw the fourth-biggest jump in students enrolling in neighborhood charter schools last school year, according to a recent report.
"A Growing Movement: America's Largest Charter School Communities," looked at enrollment in districts and charter schools in communities with more than 10,000 public school students. The study was reported by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.
The report looked at enrollment changes in charter schools within a district's boundaries, but not necessarily whether those students came from that district.
This year's report - which examined changes from the 2009-10 school year to the 2010-11 school year - found that charter schools in Mesa saw a 27 percent jump in students. An additional 2,697 students enrolled in Mesa's charters during that time frame.
Statewide, Arizona saw a 9.4 percent jump in charter school enrollment in 2010-11, according to the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
Nationally, Orange County Public Schools in Florida saw the biggest jump in students defecting from school districts to enroll in charter schools - 42 percent.
Mesa district Superintendent Mike Cowan acknowledged that parents are shopping around for schools in Arizona, and that's why his district is looking at what it offers. In recent years, it's opened the Mesa Academy for Advanced Studies, Summit Academy (an International Baccalaureate program) and an additional Franklin back-to-basics campus.
The district has tracked recent enrollment declines to a number of factors, from the economy to political policies that impact immigrant students. But Cowan said the district does not believe charter schools are playing a major role.
"We recognize that education is deregulated and it is a competitive market. To continue to be competitive, we're consistently looking at different choices and options for parents," he said. "We continue to look at and expand parental options so they have a menu of options, rather than just a single school."
About 16 percent of Mesa students attend a charter school, the National Alliance for Charter Schools' report shows. That's been consistent, Mesa Unified leaders say.
There are 43 charter schools with Mesa addresses, according to the Arizona Department of Education website. There may be dozens more in other cities within driving distance. And some parents take their students to a school no matter how long it takes to get there. So while many Mesa students may be in those charter classrooms, some may be coming from surrounding communities as well.
Margaret Williamson, superintendent of Mesa's Academy with Community Partners charter school, said students are still knocking on her doors to get into the high school. She estimated that 90 percent of the enrollment is from Mesa.
"More students want smaller class size," she said. "They want a more individualized program."
The school has 204 students this year, about 20 more than last year. During the 2009-2010 school year, there were 160 students.
"Right now, we're full," Williamson said. She hopes to add more classrooms in the future.
Heritage Academy, which sits in downtown Mesa, also reports it is at capacity.
"We continue to have more kids who want to come here or parents who want them to come here than we can take. We have waiting lists," principal Earl Taylor said. "We've tried to expand our facility as much as we can now."
The school purchased an adjacent building two years ago to add about 150 students to its seventh-through-12th grade enrollment. More than 600 students attend the school this year.
Meanwhile, Mesa school district is continuing to mull ways to address not only declining enrollment, but how it educates students.
Cowan is leading the district through a process dubbed, "Defining the Future." For the past few years, district leaders have looked at empty classrooms around the district to see what else can be moved there or if a building should be leased out or sold. Mesa has also looked at popular programs that could be added.
The governing board could vote as soon as next Tuesday on a proposal to close Mesa Junior High School and convert Brimhall Junior High School into a campus that would house three Franklin schools. The Brimhall change would disperse those junior high students currently there to other schools.
"Regardless of the board's decision Tuesday," Cowan said, the district will keep looking at ways to draw students in and retain them in district schools. "We'll continue to look at different models to bring into Mesa to allow parents a choice."
The district is also looking to boost its image through additional marketing and public relations.
"We recognize we need to do a better job of communicating with our community the outstanding things going on in Mesa Public Schools," he said.
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Michelle Reese, East Valley Tribune