MANATEE -- More than 3,000 parents and prospective students crowded into the Bradenton Area Convention Center for Manatee County School District's first school choice fair Monday.
The event marked the opening of the district school choice enrollment period, which runs through Feb. 7. It is the only time during the school year when parents can apply to have students attend a school outside their assigned zone without giving a specified reason.
Turnout reflected keen interest in choice enrollment, school officials said. Public and charter schools use creative hooks such as games, mascots and live demonstrations to draw the attention of students and parents.
The event became so crowded there were lines for each booth.
"They're competitive, and that's what we are hoping for," school district spokesman Stephen Valley said.
School choice gives parents the option of enrolling their children into a specific public school.
Jeremy Meyers, a new Manatee County resident from Michigan enrolling his daughter in kindergarten, said school choice enrollment is not an option in Michigan.
Meyers is considering enrolling his daughter at Braden River Elementary, Freedom Elementary or Gene Witt Elementary. They are zoned for Braden River.
"It's the beginning of her education so we want to make the right choice," Meyers said.
Several schools around Manatee County are also holding open houses this week and next.
Nancy Goux, assistant principal at Abel Elementary, said each school has a limit on how many students it can take.
"There usually are certain schools that reach their limits before others, but our enrollment is currently open," Goux said.
Superintendent of schools Rick Mills also welcomed the focus on school choice.
"This is a time for schools to come in," Mills said, "and have face-to-face contact with the community."
In August, the Manatee County School District rehired 85 laid-off teachers after an unexpected spike in enrollment, with 950 more students than originally projected.
Florida's class-size ratios are 18 students to one teacher in prekindergarten through third grade, 22-to-1 in fourth through eighth grade and 25-to-1 in ninth through 12th grade.
Last year, Manatee School capacities overflowed with six elementary schools, two middle schools and two high schools exceeding state-mandated class sizes.
Eighteen elementary schools, three middle schools and two high schools were under capacity.
This year, district officials say they don't expect any school to be under capacity.
"The bigger issue is, while most schools are at normal capacity, other schools have the ability to be over capacity," said Diana Greene, deputy superintendent of instructional services. "We always have to watch with choice. It absolutely can happen."
Greene and other district staffers, including supervisor of student demographics Danny Lundeen, are constantly comparing enrollment with school capacity. Once capacity is reached, the district has to cut off school choice.
"Middle school is where see overcapacity the most," Greene said. "It is not nearly as much in high school, because there are a variety of choices and students are looking for a very particular program, such as (international baccalaureate). We build high expectations for every school, and each has their own little personality across the district."
Greene said school choice can increase the possibility of over-enrollment, but it also encourages parental involvement.
"They get input into where their child goes to school, and when parents are empowered, they are more likely to be involved in what is at the school," Greene said. "The more they can get involved, the better off the school, the individual child and the parent are. I think parents should be happy with schools in their zones, but they should also have the opportunity to choose."
Parents wanting more information about school choice should call the Parent Information Center at 941-708-4971 .
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.