Public school districts are mobilizing to show that "school choice" is more than private-school vouchers and charter school startups.
Administrators are opening the enrollment process to out-of-district students and offering new classes to increase enrollment, keep students from dropping out and win back students and parents who have left for private schools.
Arlington parents began camping out at the school administration building Monday, an annual ritual for those who want to be first in line to transfer their children into empty slots in preferred schools for the coming school year.
Letters went out last week in Fort Worth to applicants for the Gold Seal Schools and Programs of Choice initiative to help students earn college credits, industry licenses and certifications.Grand Prairie's schools began advertising in Tarrant County in January to lure students to " the District of Choice."
Measures to entice new students include:
The district recently expanded its career and technology offerings through a partnership with Tarrant County College that offers students the perk of dual high school and college credit and use of TCC facilities.
There are 10 new offerings, plus a popular Fire Academy choice.
"We went through the whole TCC catalog and picked the programs we can get going this year," said Craig Wright, the district's career and technology director. "We want to have students ready for employment right after graduation."
The district expects to add 430 new career-tech students through the programs.
Arlington has 13,569 students enrolled in career-tech courses. Because many students take more than one career-tech class, the total enrollment of the classes is 15,878.
The five pre-engineering courses, as well as the interest in the Fire Academy and healthcare programs, have school officials excited.
"We have calls from parents moving to Arlington to find out if their children can get into those courses here," Wright said. "There's more rigor, more occupation-specific courses at a higher standard."
Arlington trustees changed the district's transfer policy Monday night to allow out-of-district students to transfer into Arlington schools for only the $100 transfer fee, on a space-available basis. Current Arlington district residents have first choice of empty transfer slots.
The district currently has 39 out-of-district transfers who paid a tuition fee as well as a transfer fee.
Additionally, all Arlington schools are open to transfers next year with the exception of four elementary schools affected by a new school opening.
This year, 4,578 elementary students, 916 junior high and 1,664 high school students transferred from one Arlington school to another.
Arlington parents don't hesitate to camp out for a chance to get their children into a good school.
"I got here at 7:30 this morning, and I was No. 13 in line," said Eric Unger, father of a girl going into kindergarten in August, plus twin boys who just turned 1. He planned to sleep in his SUV for the week until transfer requests begin being taken Saturday.
"We thought about private school, but the expense was just too much, and we're paying for public school with our taxes," he said. "We looked at sending her to a charter school, but we have friends whose first-grade daughter comes home every night with lots of homework. That seemed extreme to us."
The Ungers hope to get a slot at Butler Elementary, where their daughter's friends will be attending. Those parents camped out in prior years to secure spots for their children.
The district is drawing students from multiple attendance zones and outside of the district by billing its concept of specialized learning as a private school education without the cost.
Campuses across the district serve as sites for various programs, including an all-boys school that opened in the fall, a fire science technology program at Eastern Hills High, an aviation technology program at Dunbar High and a pre-biomedical sciences preparatory program at Stripling Middle School.
This year's "Choice Expo" information and enrollment event drew 2,328 students, compared with last year's 1,800. District officials processed 4,828 applications, an increase from last year's 4,114, including 157 applications from out-of-district students.
"We are giving students and their parents the power of choice. It is the power to choose courses of study based on personal interests and passions," a district brochure says.
Trustee Tobi Jackson said an additional bonus at Eastern Hills High is that families are drawn to move to the neighborhood to be closer to the campus.
Students are motivated and coming to class, affecting the state funding formula, which is based on average daily student attendance, not enrollment.
"The kids come to school because they like the coursework," Jackson said. "They don't want to miss a day because they were involved in a choice."
The district is in its second year of a sweeping change to Schools of Choice, including repurposing traditional schools into academies for fine arts, math and science, environmental sciences, sports medicine and leadership, career high schools and single-gender campuses.
This year's district enrollment is 26,874 students, an increase of 388 from last year.
"What we are seeing is we're recapturing kids within GPISD, and that was our main intent, kids that were in our district but were not going to our schools," district spokesman Sam Buchmeyer said. "Aggressive advertising seems to be helping the open-enrollment district, too."
Last year, about 10 percent of new students applying to Grand Prairie schools came from 16 other districts, including Arlington, Mansfield, Dallas, Burleson, Hurst-Euless-Bedford, Fort Worth, Weatherford and Kennedale.
"We're really making sure people understand that we believe in public schools," Buchmeyer said.
"As we do this for Grand Prairie, we're helping the other districts prepare as well."
Staff writer Jessamy Brown contributed to this report
Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657