MANATEE — The yellow and gray magnet Diana Craig slapped onto the back of her black four-door Mazda draws lots of attention.
“Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch,” reads the small slogan inside a print that includes the sun and a shark, the school’s mascot.
“People stop me all the time and say, ‘Oh, do you like it? Tell me about it.’” said the Bradenton mom, whose two children attend the charter school in East Manatee. “Oh, yeah, I brag about the school.”
Whether it’s better marketing or something else, more students this year are attending charter schools in Manatee County and indications show state and national numbers are up, too.
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Enrollment at the county’s eight charter schools is up 16.3 percent or 426 students from last year for a total 2,615 children, according to statistics released from the district last week.
School officials in Manatee attributed the increase to better marketing, improvements in academic performance by charters and one of the county’s charter schools adding more grade levels this year.
Enrollment numbers for state and national charter schools are not yet available for the 2009-2010 year, but during the last school year, the nation’s charter student population grew 11 percent and the number of schools grew 8 percent from the 2007-08 school year.
In Florida during the 2008-2009 school year, 117,602 students attended 389 charter schools — up from the previous year when 105,239 students attended 358 schools across the state. That’s an almost 12 percent increase in student enrollment statewide.
Those numbers will continue to climb, as the state anticipates about 400 charters this school year, said Mike Kooi, executive director for the state’s office of Independent Education and Parental Choice.
“So we will definitely have more students,” Kooi said. “I think parents are just taking advantage of options and the opportunities that might fit their children better than the school they are assigned to.”
Charter schools are getting better academically, he said, and each year many are expanding opportunities for students, including sports — something a lot of them don’t offer or have not always offered.
Charter schools are tuition-free public schools created through an agreement or “charter” between the school and the local school board or a state university. They are governed privately and like traditional public schools must demonstrate success, or they will lose their charter. Charter schools can be managed by municipalities, private companies or individuals.
Since 1996, Florida charter schools have increased parental options in public education and provided innovative learning opportunities for students, according to the state Department of Education.
Florida ranks fourth in the nation both in the number of charter schools and in charter school enrollment, according to the DOE.
“Historically, public schools have not had to market schools in order to attract families,” said Verdya Bradley, the district’s supervisor of innovative programs and parental options. “This is no longer the case. The increase in charter enrollment is directly tied to some aggressive marketing strategies being used by charter school staff.”
PAL Academy, which serves 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, is up 30 children from last year’s enrollment.
The school’s Chief Executive Officer, Fred Spence, said the academy sent out mailers and had word-of-mouth referrals from parents.
“We went to our parents last year and said, ‘If you really like the service we provide, go out into the community and say how well things are going for you and your family,’” he said. “They did. And I think that’s been a huge success for us — to have the parents out in the streets recruiting.”
Bradenton resident Ella Morris is one of them. Her twin daughters are in eighth grade at PAL this year.
This summer she said she often wore PAL T-shirts and even carried school fliers.
“I think it’s something to be shared,” Morris said. “I tell friends I like the more hand-on (approach). And it’s a smaller setting and they get more attention.”
Spence also chalked up the enrollment increase to the school’s recent academic gains. When he took over in the fall of 2007, the school’s academics were so bad, the school didn’t have a grade.
Since then it has received a “C” grade.
“Our goal is to become an “A” school this year and we will do it,” Spence said.
At Manatee School for the Arts in Palmetto, Principal Bill Jones said the school brought its grade up from a “B” in 2008 to an “A” in 2009.
“Our academic program is first class,” Jones said of the county’s largest charter school with a student enrollment of 1,261, up 124 pupils from last year. “And yeah, I put a lot of effort into marketing and so forth, but the biggest message is getting out what we offer. To get people in here and look at the product, the place sells itself.
“But it’s a lot of the other stuff. It’s a big package. We have extensive programs that allow students to become proficient whether it’s music, dance, art, computer graphics. We’ve got depth as well as breadth. If you look at the extensive nature of our offerings, we offer and provide what the parents and the students want. That is really the bottom line. I don’t mean to be simplistic but that’s the reality.”
Imagine School at Lakewood Ranch, which opened in August 2008, serves 392 students compared to last year’s 62 students. The school had the highest jump in enrollment because it added grades six and seven this year at a new facility on Portal Crossing, off State Road 64. Principal Stephen Sajewski said the school will keep growing too. That’s because next year it plans to serve eighth graders.
“Our vision has always been to have a facility where a child could start in kindergarten and progress,” he said.
That’s one of the reasons Craig enrolled her kids there.
Her first-grade daughter was one of the original 50 students at the school when it opened last year.
Imagine Lakewood Ranch’s sister school, Imagine School at North Manatee, also is in a temporary facility, The Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex on 29th Street East.
In October, students and staff will move into a new facility at 9275 49th Ave. E. off Moccasin Wallow Road, north of Palmetto.
Currently, Imagine North serves 204 students in grades K-7. Last year, it had 247 students. But Beauregard said enrollment will be back up when the school moves.
The attractive brand-new facility, built to serve 750, should attract more students, she said.
Both schools want to start up sports teams during the 2010-11 school year. Currently, none of Manatee’s charters have them, Beauregard said.
“Maybe soccer or football,” she said.
It helped enrollment at other charters across the state, like Mater Academy Charter in Miami-Dade County,
Just this past year, the school served 2,000 students in middle through high school grades,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokesperson for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools, a nonprofit charter advocate group.
What traditional schools are doing to keep up
Traditional schools, Bradley said, will now have to get into the mind set that they can no longer take for granted that families will remain with them.
“There are a growing number of choices and more parents are taking advantage of those options,” she said. “By the way, this is exactly what charter school legislation intended — to create healthy competition.”
This year, enrollment in the district is down by 288 students, according to an estimated five-day count released this week. In past years, it’s seen more growth than decline, said Superintendent Tim McGonegal.
To gain back students to the district, which includes seven traditional high schools, there are plans to review policies and procedures that were developed during the years it was growing, McGonegal said.
“Just three years ago we grew by about 1,200 students,” he said. “Now we’re looking to see what we can change internally to make sure we’re keeping the students in the traditional public schools.”
McGonegal said charters are important choices for parents and noted that the school board supports them.
“This county has embraced the charter school concept,” Manatee County school board member Barbara Harvey said.
Other efforts to market traditional schools include the district hosting a high school academy showcase this week in conjunction with post-secondary education night, also known as college night, said district spokeswoman Margi Nanney. It will be held on Wednesday at the Manatee Convention and Civic Center in Palmetto. Information on many of the district’s traditional schools will be available then.
Bradley said it’s also important for traditional schools to get the word out to the community about their success.
“I think we have to tell our story and keep people aware of all the good things that are occurring in our (traditional) schools,” Bradley said. “If we don’t tell our story and brag about the successes, they will just go by the wayside.
For instance if a family is looking at a high school, for example Southeast, and they just look at the FCAT grade ... Unless you dig deeper you could see the SAT scores there are the highest in the district. Don’t always look at the grade. Look at the high school comprehensively and see there a lot of good things going on,” he said.