Charter. District. Private. Home. Schooling options abound in Arizona. Many schools are accepting applications now for next school year, with parents exercising their ability to make those choices in growing numbers.
The spring before her daughter entered kindergarten, Mesa mom Michelle Lyon started the search for the ideal school to send her eldest child.
It started in a parent magazine, where she read an article about schools. She researched ratings. She visited campuses.
"I didn't want my child to be lost. I didn't want a school that was too big. I wanted smaller classes. I wanted them to concentrate on the child as well, and not just the learning," Lyon said.
After her on-site visits of four campuses, Lyon chose Gilbert Arts Academy, a pre-kindergarten through sixth-grade charter school.
Today, her daughter is a second-grader at the school, and her youngest daughter is in kindergarten.
Charter. District. Private. Home. Schooling options abound in Arizona.
Many schools are accepting applications now for next school year, with parents like Lyon exercising their ability to make those choices in growing numbers.
Overall enrollment in public schools in Arizona - district schools and charter schools serving grades kindergarten through 12 - only grew by .6 percent from the 2008-09 school year to this year, according to the Arizona Department of Education.
But the state's charter schools - public schools that are privately operated - saw a nearly 13 percent jump in enrollment. And, an additional 246 students in Maricopa County registered as home-schoolers this year, bringing the total to more than 10,000, according to the Maricopa County Superintendent of Schools office, where parents are required to register with the department when they home-school their children.
District schools, too, are seeing a robust number of children whose parents have decided to enroll their children somewhere other than their closest neighborhood public school. More than 3,000 out-of-district students are enrolled in Chandler and Gilbert unified school districts, while close to 3,000 out-of-district students are enrolled in Mesa Unified School District.
"Arizona is ranked first in the nation in parental choice," said Tom Horne, state superintendent of public instruction. "I think that improves schools. The competition is good for everybody."
Fifteen years ago, Arizona lawmakers created a charter school law that opened the doors for educators to create programs they felt would fit the desires of a growing number of families.
Some worked. Some didn't. But those that survived are up for renewal of their contracts with the state - and their numbers keep growing.
Last year, there were 480 charter schools across the state. This year, there are 509.
While total enrollment in public schools grew 4 percent in the last five years, charters grew 32 percent.
"The purpose of choice in education is to provide the highest quality, customized education for every child. Every child is different. Every family is different," said Sue Douglas, who runs Mesa Arts Academy, one of the original charter schools in Arizona.
Douglas' school integrates arts into the classrooms. Every first-grader learns tap dancing. Every third-grader takes up the violin.
"These things we can do because of our unique program. Does every family want that? No. School choice provides families with the opportunity to shop," Douglas said. "Any person who grew up in Arizona would applaud that opportunity to decide where they want to be."
Choice around the corner
School districts have also developed programs to give families more options.
Just about every East Valley district offers a back-to-basics or classical program. Mesa will add one more next school year when the district converts Alma Elementary School into a Franklin back-to-basics school. At the district's four current Franklin schools, teachers provide instruction to every student in the classroom at one time and students wear uniforms. Both Mesa and Chandler districts added traditional, back-to-basics junior high schools this year.
"One size doesn't fit all," said Bob Rice, a member of the Chandler Unified School District's governing board. "I think the charter school movement has been beneficial to districts that have responded to it in that we've provided more choice ... We're going to have the resources behind the district available to the alternative schools we have."
Mesa's Highland Elementary School, a neighborhood school in north Mesa, offers an arts-based curriculum. More than 300 students in the school of 750 are not from the school's boundaries.
"The people who hunt and bring their kids to out-of-boundary schools are parents pretty dedicated to education," said Highland principal Suzi Rollins.
Districts also offer Montessori schools, and accelerated programs like International Baccalaureate and college prep.
For the past four years, Chandler's Andersen Junior High School has had single-gender classrooms available for students.
"We have some parents who bring their kids here specifically because they want their daughters in single gender classes," said principal Jim Anderson.
The test scores for boys has jumped, Anderson said, since the program started.
"It works for a number of kids, but it doesn't work for all of them," and changes can be made when that becomes apparent, he said.
Private schools exist throughout the East Valley. Chandler's Seton Catholic High School recently broke ground on the first part of an expansion to eventually hold 1,000 students on the campus. It is the only Catholic high school in the East Valley.
Chandler and Queen Creek each have elementary schools tied to the Diocese of Phoenix, while Mesa is home to three. A few secular options are also available, from Rancho Solano in Gilbert to New Vistas Academy in Chandler.
There has been growth in private schools enrollment - from 44,710 in 1999 to 51,590 in 2007, according to the most recent numbers from the state and the National Center for Educational Statistics.
Through the state's Private School Tax Credits, students can apply for scholarships from nonprofit school tuition organizations. Those groups collect donations from taxpayers who can then receive a state tax credit, up to $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a couple. Corporations can also donate through a separate program that targets lower-income families.