Parents begin annual school endurance test

Whether camping out or getting set to hit the computer first thing Monday, parents across Tarrant County are preparing to sign up for transfers within and outside their district as the Fort Worth, Arlington and Birdville school districts kick off the process for 2010-11 next week.

Cyrese Austin, in Arlington, has a jump on them all. She and her husband, Mark, have had a camper parked in the parking lot of the Arlington district administration building at 1203 W. Pioneer Parkway for more than two weeks.

"My husband had to handle the snow, and he was very, very cold," said Cyrese Austin, who wants her son Cade to go to Butler Elementary School because he already has friends there and because it's rated exemplary.

By Thursday morning, she had been joined by five other campers, some of whom have pitched tents.

Campers also have been outside Paschal High School in Fort Worth since Tuesday, another yearly tradition. Birdville does sign-ups for students from out-of-district online, starting Monday.

Elsewhere, the good or bad news has already come.

In Westlake, families gathered Thursday for the annual open enrollment lottery for Westlake Academy, the state's only municipally operated public charter school.

Children in Westlake get automatic acceptance. This year, the school only has four kindergarten spots open for the fall. Nearly 700 applicants were competing in the lottery for spots on a waiting list.

In past years, the lottery process has involved such things as pulling ping-pong balls out of a hopper with names printed on them. This year, officials plugged applicants' names into a Web site that assigns random numbers to determine their place on the waiting list.

"That waiting list is strong evidence of pent-up demand for educational choice and access to International Baccalaureate curriculum," said Thomas Brymer, Westlake Academy's chief executive officer. Westlake is one of a handful of schools nationwide that offers all grade levels of the rigorous International Baccalaureate program

"They want alternatives in education. They want to focus on the skills that graduates will need to compete in the global marketplace," Brymer said.

Blocking sidewalks

Fort Worth students can apply to transfer to any middle or high school if space is available. Administrators grant transfers based on their order in line as well as the individual needs and desires of the student. Special-interest programs on campuses have an application process, the deadline for which is today.

Dunbar High School has the highest percentage of students transferring in with about 46 percent of its 876 students coming from other attendance zones. Paschal High School has the most students transferring in at 727, with dozens of families camping out days before transfers are accepted to secure a spot at Paschal.

This year parents are abiding by an honor system, sign-in after authorities told them their tents were violating city code because they were blocking the sidewalk.

Brandon Bennett, director of the city's code compliance, said authorities received an inquiry from someone concerned about the campers. Bennett said sidewalks along the road cannot be completely blocked to ensure pedestrian safety.

"If it is blocked, then people walking down the sidewalk would then have to walk in the street," he said. "We know they wouldn't be there so early if it wasn't important for them to get their kids signed up for school, and we don't want to be a damper on that, but we want to make sure there are still safe and accessible routes down the street."

Miriam Astorga was first parent to stake her claim, arriving at the school at 10 p.m. Tuesday to secure a spot in the school for her daughter Samantha.

Later when code compliance workers approached the families asking them to remove the tents Wednesday, the families took a vote on how to proceed next, Astorga said.

"Parents voted for the honor system to keep from staying the night in the weather without tents," said Astorga, who noted that rain was expected today. Astorga and a handful of other parents were organizing the sign-in with a few families opting to stay overnight to ensure their place in line.

By Thursday afternoon, about 160 families had signed in with the group.

For Worth also takes students from outside the district, but they must pay tuition.

Tuition payments

The application process for Birdville schools' open enrollment is all online. Starting March 1, students can apply to attend campuses that have available space.

Birdville officials accept students from outside district boundaries to raise money because the district is no longer growing.

In 2008-09, the program's first year, about 400 students who live outside the Birdville borders participated in the program, raising about $1.75 million in additional state funding. Most students come from Keller and Fort Worth, said Mark Thomas, school district spokesman.

Students do not pay tuition, but families must provide their own transportation. Applicants must meet certain criteria, including a 95 percent attendance rate and passing grades in all classes. Among the other reasons students can be denied acceptance are if they have a record of disciplinary infractions or if the school is already full.

This year, Birdville officials plan to gather data on why students want to leave their home campus to transfer to Birdville or change schools within the school district, said Rick Kempe, student services department director.

Arlington also opened its elementary school campuses with available spots to students from other districts last year, though they are charged $1,898 in yearly tuition. Last year, three students took advantage of the offer. Another 42 students whose parents work in but do not live in the district also transferred in. They don't pay tuition.

More than 7,500 students in Arlington transferred from their home campus to another. The district charges a $50 transfer fee in March and $80 for families that sign up after that.

Cyrese Austin said she expects this weekend will bring more campers to the Arlington lot, but this year's numbers are down from what the crowd has been in recent years.

Brian Bolton, whose family is No. 2 in line, said being an attorney allows him a bit of flexibility in his schedule. That freedom helped as he has waited since Feb. 17 to sign up his daughter Grace for kindergarten at Hill Elementary. He said test scores at his home campus, academically acceptable-rated South Davis Elementary, were a factor.

"Hill's a better school," he said.

TRACI SHURLEY, 817-390-7641

JESSAMY BROWN, 817-390-7326

EVA-MARIE AYALA, 817-390-7700