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Schools vie for choosy students

MANATEE — Wakeland Elementary, Johnson Middle and Southeast High schools laud their International Baccalaureate programs.

Ballard and Tillman elementaries tout their status as magnet schools.

Schools across Manatee are at the height of their marketing efforts, hoping to attract new pupils for the 2010-11 school year during the school choice open enrollment period.

Parents who want to send their child to a different school are now shopping around. Through Feb. 5, parents can request that their child attend another school without giving a specific reason for the move.

School funding is based on student population. So schools compete for students and the opportunity to offer more elective programs and enhanced curriculum, a result of higher enrollment.

Parent Huguette Salahuddin got her 14-year-old daughter Nuri into Southeast High last year during school choice.

She likes the IB program there. Her son graduated from Southeast in 2007 and got great preparation for college, Salahuddin said.

“It was a tough start for him, but he hung in there and in his junior and senior year, he was flying high,” she said.

Bradenton resident Melissa Neal’s 5-year-old daughter Brianna is assigned to Braden River Elementary for kindergarten. But last year she requested Brianna attend Rowlett Magnet School.

“They have an arts theme, they have drama and they have dance,” Neal said. “They also offer the kids Spanish starting in kindergarten.”

Applications are collected and entered into a computer and a student is either denied or accepted to attend the school of choice. Approval is subject to enrollment capacities and other demographic criteria.

Bradenton mom Sherry Armstrong wasn’t lucky enough to get her daughter into Rowlett last year.

So she’s trying again. She filled out the school choice paperwork Wednesday. If she doesn’t get it, Alicia stays at Willis Elementary.

“A lot of the stuff they do at magnet schools with technology and performance, is what Alicia likes to do,” Armstrong said.

Marketing efforts

The district does not have a budget for marketing schools. But it does help individual schools through its Web site and district newsletter, said Margi Nanney, district spokeswoman.

Individual schools do their own marketing through personalized newsletters, open houses and brochures. They pay for it with internal funds normally approved by the school’s administrative staff and its School Advisory Council, Nanney said.

Some schools like G.D. Rogers Garden Elementary, Johnson and Wakeland market heavily, said Sheryl Riker, school choice specialist.

That’s because they do not have attendance zones, so they rely on recruitment.

“We live and die by it, so if parents don’t choose our school, we don’t have kids,” said Wakeland Principal Chuck Fradley.

Lee Middle and Rowlett have reduced attendance zones and also do plenty of advertising.

Other schools will be more aggressive, depending on enrollment needs, if they have empty seats, Nanney said.

Depending on how much postage and printing schools use to promote themselves, they can spend anywhere from several hundreds to a few thousand dollars on marketing, school officials said.

Fradley said most of his marketing cost is for printing, which includes the production of fliers they send to pre-kindergarten schools around the county.

“But my most effective marketing by far is our parents,” he said. “They tell friends who tell friends.”

Palmetto High Principal Willie Clark said his biggest marketing tool is an open house, which the school held its two weeks ago.

“We had a good turn out. Had SGA there and representatives from our academies and small learning communities,” Clark said. ”We shared a lot of information on the programs we have to offer.”

The application process

School choice options for elementary students are limited to schools within a specific geographical cluster. Choice options for middle school students are limited to specific geographical regions. High school students can use school choice to attend any high school; however, a student cannot choose to go to another school once they have completed the 10th grade.

Applications are available at school sites and can be found at www.manatee schools.net. They are also available at the school district’s Parent Information Center, 234 Manatee Ave. E., Bradenton.

For the 2010-11 school year, Braden River High School will be closed to choice applications.

“We’re close to 1,900 students, our capacity is right there,” said Principal Jim Pauley. “Our incoming ninth grade will be quite large, but we expect to stay at about the same number during the next school year.”

Why is it so popular?

“The principal is so great,” he said, jokingly. “No, we’re the only school that has wall-to-wall academy. Every one of our students belong to a national certified academy. We have four academies: business and inter studies, arts and communications, science and health, and engineering and leaders.”

How students are chosen

Factors involved in the selection process include students who are on free and reduced lunch and those who live one mile from the school of choice, Riker said.

“In some cases, students live less than a mile from the school they’d like to attend, but are geographically zoned to another school,” Riker said. “And if King Middle School needs students who are on free and reduced lunch, any student who applies and is on it, their application is weighted.”

Students who don’t get their first school of choice can reapply the following year.

Parents like Neal said she is grateful she can request where her child attends school.

“It just seems worth it to have kids exposed to that variety when it’s available,” Neal said.

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