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As student count shows charter growth swing, district-run schools try new marketing tact

By Jason Schultz - Palm Beach Post Staff Writer



At Christa McAuliffe Middle School this month, eighth-graders bounced up and down on their exercise balls while doing their online U.S. History lesson and the class pet bunny, Ihop, bounced around the room.

This is the suburban Boynton Beach school’s new “Launch Pad” computer lab, said Jeff Silverman, its principal. Designed to feel like a college student union, with exercise balls and rocking chairs for video-gaming instead of traditional desks, it’s just one of the ways the school hopes to appeal to prospective students who’ve been leaving for local charter schools.

“We want word of this to spread among the kids so when their parents are thinking they want to apply to Franklin (Academy, a nearby K-8 charter school), the kids will say, ‘No, we want to stay at Christa McAuliffe,’ ” Silverman said.

The Palm Beach County School District’s Oct. 17 student population count shows enrollment at district-run schools dropped by 747 students from the same time last year. Charter schools grew by nearly 4,100 students in the same period — surpassing 16,000 total students.

While the district-run schools drop is better than a preliminary count in September of nearly 1,100 students from last year, the latest count equates to about $5.3 million less in state money for the district. That’s about equal to the 750-student decrease the district estimated in this year’s budget, said Mike Burke, the district’s chief operating officer.

Middle schools like Christa McAuliffe, a school at Jog Road and LeChalet Boulevard that lost 139 students, accounted for almost all of the decline, the district said.

Principals such as Silverman at Christa McAuliffe and Bonnie Fox at Odyssey Middle — both of which are in suburban Boynton — attribute their enrollment decrease to the opening of nearby charters. Just to the north of Christa McAuliffe, Hidden Oaks Elementary School also dropped by 121 students. It’s across the street from the new Franklin Academy.

The issue is not just in communities west of Boynton Beach. Owen Torres, a school district spokesman, said Crestwood Middle in Royal Palm Beach lost 43 students due to nearby charter schools opening.

School Board Member Karen Brill said she is growing increasingly concerned about fed-up parents switching to charters over issues such as attendance boundary changes at district-run schools. The problem is not only the loss of state money for district-run schools, but also leaving schools like Odyssey Middle, at West Woolbright and Jog roads, at only 61 percent of capacity.

District officials have predicted charters will grow while district-run schools shrink through at least 2018. To counteract that trend, officials are trying to take a page from the charter school book and do more to sell their schools to students and parents.

Christa McAuliffe’s Silverman said when he asks parents why they’ve left for charters, some say they were lured in large part by the charter’s attractive website.

“What that tells me is that we need a great website, as well,” Silverman said. As a result, his school is revamping its site with photo slideshows and more information aimed at attracting parents. “It’s all about marketing now.”

The Launch Pad computer lab, which was a shop class space until teacher Debbie Baughman converted it over the summer, is also aimed at giving children something that makes them want to stay.

Eighth-grader Helen O’Brien, 13, said her 10-year-old sister Natalie left nearby Manatee Elementary to go to Franklin. Helen stayed at Christa McAuliffe primarily because of her friends, but thinks things like the Launch Pad lab could convince other students to stay.

“Things like this are just interesting and different,” Helen said. “And I love the bunny. I want to take him home.”

The district also is helping sell district-run schools to parents. A new district website called the Public School Showcase shows off programs at each district-run school — and more marketing plans are in the works, Torres said.

“That is just the first stage of much more to come,” he said.


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