Districts challenged by charters' growth
Schools ramping up offerings, marketing to attract students.
The Meridian charter school in Williamson County is just 5 years old and
has nearly 1,300 students. But with an additional 1,400 students on a waiting list and an expansion underway, Meridian has captured the attention of the Round Rock school district, which has
already lost more than 700 students to it.
The Round Rock district, long considered elite among Central Texas school systems, has now hired its fifirst marketing coordinator and is beefing up academic offerings. Next year, it will roll out a visual and performing arts academy, an arts- and science-heavy elementary school and a campus where high school students can earn up to two years of college credit by the time they graduate.
It’s the beginning of what is shaping up to be a long-term campaign for the allegiance of suburban parents and students who fifive years ago had little alternative to traditional public schools. Meridian, which has an engaging website but does no advertising, has nearly doubled in size since it opened in 2011.
“Round Rock ISD has always been
progressive; however, because of the speed of change ... in the choice and option movement, we’ve had to adjust and expand on those opportunities,” Round Rock Superintendent Steve Flores said. “I don’t see charters as threats. I see them as an opportunity to get better, as an opportunity to create the best schools possible in Round Rock ISD. When we get this right, there is no doubt that will happen.”
Other suburban districts in Central Texas aren’t far behind. Charter schools in the region used to be concentrated in urban areas where they largely targeted neighborhoods with low-performing schools. But now they’re also fifinding a welcome reception on the outskirts of Austin.
“Charter schools are still predominately an urban movement, but we’re seeing more and more of them in the suburbs,” said David Dunn, executive director of the Texas Charter Schools Association. “Parents in the suburbs want to have choices and other options as well. Maybe it’s smaller campuses, maybe it’s school safety environment. It’s probably a variety of things. More and more want to see options in educational environment, and charter schools are rising to meet those options.”
Charter schools, which are nontraditional public schools run by private groups, have about 4 percent of the public school population in Texas. Compared with national averages, Central Texas still has a relatively small market, with charter schools accounting for about 6 to 8 percent of the student population. But charter school enrollment has grown rapidly in the region, having more than quadrupled since 2006 to more than 14,000 stu- dents last year.
A handful of charter schools dot the suburban areas, including Round Rock, Leander, Georgetown and Wimberley. Often, those located in suburbs offer a unique curriculum, such as the classical education offered at Founder’s Classical Academy in Leander and Meridian’s International Baccalaureate program, Dunn said. While parents living in Central Texas suburbs still most often choose their neighborhood campus, their secondary options typically fell to parochial education or home schooling. But charter schools are gaining ground in Austin’s outskirts.
Enrollment in Gateway College Preparatory School in Georgetown skyrocketed from 36 students when it opened in 2009 to 1,225 students this year; in its second year, Founder’s Classical Academy now has 520 students. Harmony Public Schools, with enrollment reaching about 3,800 this year in its six Austin-area campuses, expanded its reach in 2011 with a campus near Cedar Park that draws 900 students from the Round Rock and Leander districts.
About 60 percent of Meridian’s students live within the Round Rock district boundaries, though the school is open to students in all of Williamson County. The school, which carries a long list of academic distinctions from the state, will open a second building next year that will eventually allow for more than 500 additional students.
“I think the big draw is the promise of more in-depth teaching, in-depth experience, more engaged learning,” said Karalei Nunn, Meridian founder, noting the school does no drilling for state-mandated exams and offers just one prep test for the state’s standardized test. “I have to say it’s because of the curriculum and because we are committed to doing it with fidelity.”
Like other urban dis- tricts across the country, the Austin school district has seen student enrollment dwindle in the past three years, with about half leaving for neighboring districts and a quarter of students leaving for charter schools.
District leaders say they were slow to address the competition, and they recently have launched multimedia marketing campaigns, expanded prekindergarten to 3-year-olds and enlisted the help of loc al real estate agents to spread the word about programs or improvements that have been made in recent years.
Even before Meridian was on his radar in Round Rock, Flores was familiar with school competition.
During his time leading the Harlingen school system in South Texas, that district was losing about 170 students annually to charter IDEA Public Schools and South Texas Independent School District, a magnet district that serves only junior high and high school stu- dents. The Harlingen district didn’t have a plan, so he challenged the staff there to determine how to offset that loss.
“Having that experience, and coming into Round Rock and knowing that we’re losing students to charters and private schools — and we want to be great partners with whoever educates kids that reside within the Round Rock school district — but we want to be able to create this destination district, so that our parents, when given the choice, choose our schools,” Flores said. “That’s why our strategic plan is aggressive. It allows us to move in the direction that affords our parents with choice.”
Future years could also see the district add a world language academy in elementary school grades, a second early college high school, a sixth comprehensive high school and a health professions high school.
In the Hays and Georgetown districts, school leaders have beefed up academic offerings; Georgetown has had preliminary discussions about starting its own in-district charter school.
“It’s a changing landscape in education,” said Tim Savoy, spokesman for the Hays district, which is offering more career and technical options along with dual credit opportunities and is working on plans to launch an early college high school.
“We want to offer them more choices,” Savoy said. “We want to capture their interest. But we know the reality is there are more choices out there, and there will continue to be choices, and school districts have to look at the top to bottom and see what people want. School districts have to evaluate everything they do, even down to the bell schedule.”