After a decade of declining enrollment, the Pinellas County School District made an aggressive push this year to compete with private and charter schools.
It opened two new elementary schools and four new middle school programs. It took over a closing charter school for at-risk students. It marketed to parents with invitation-only open houses and direct mailers.
The result: Superintendent Mike Grego told the School Board this week that enrollment went up for the first time in a decade, the result of greater communication with parents and special programs that were "embracing and bringing people into our schools."
The numbers, however, tell a more complicated story. Overall enrollment did increase this year to 101,512 students — a bump of 164 students — but the growth was propelled by charter schools. Charters gained 171 students this year, while district schools lost seven, according to a year-over-year comparison of the 10-day enrollment count.
It's still a "tremendous recovery" for the district, said Bill Lawrence, director in charge of student assignment.
"In years past there were times when we were losing thousands of students a year," he said.
Grego said the state's October count will give a better indication. "Every day we're enrolling kids, believe it or not," he said.
Still, the early numbers speak to what has become an education arms race among traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. To draw students, schools are increasingly touting the latest technology, the "it" program that might give students a competitive edge in college admissions and that sense of pride that comes from saying "My child goes to this school."
Since his arrival two years ago, Grego has pushed to expand educational options. In addition to this year's new schools and programs, he announced in July a multiyear plan to add five more magnets throughout Pinellas, including a performing arts program, a technology-themed middle school and three International Baccalaureate programs.
At Gulf Beaches and Kings Highway elementary schools, which reopened this year as magnets, the district has tried to generate that "wow factor" with technology. Students work on iPads, which can go home and are tailored to each child's abilities.
It's proving popular with staff and students. Dewayne Bessye, a fourth-grader who came from Dunedin Elementary School, said the iPads made tests and note-taking fun.
"When you do notes, I like that you type instead of using pencil and paper," he said.
To Steve Christopoulos, CEO and president of Superior Schools, the model is familiar. His Plato charter schools, which have nearly 2,000 students on six campuses in Pinellas, have sent laptops and iPads home with students for years, he said. His chain, which emphasizes Greek language and culture, plans to open a seventh school next year.
He believes that the district, to some extent, is mimicking what works in his schools — "the sincerest form of flattery," he said.
International Baccalaureate programs have long attracted students to high schools. Now the rigorous programs have become selling points in elementary and middle schools, too.
Sanderlin K-8 in St. Petersburg has grown in popularity because of its IB programs. St. John Vianney Catholic School, which is less than a half mile from Gulf Beaches Elementary, offers a middle-years IB program as does St. Cecelia Interparochial Catholic School in Clearwater.
Grego's latest plan would put IB programs at Mildred Helms Elementary and John Hopkins and Largo middle schools.
Competition for students has reached even into the preschool years. Students in the prekindergarten program at Kings Highway Elementary will learn the violin. Canterbury School of Florida, a private school with two campuses in St. Petersburg, boasts a "language-rich environment" in preschool, with Mandarin Chinese and Spanish training.
Canterbury added the program — launched for 3-year-olds a few years ago — which "feeds into our lower school," said Michelle Robinson, director of admissions.
The school's enrollment has increased over the past three years, she said. Parents like the marine studies program, the arts, language training and character education, she said. About 25 percent of the students receive financial aid to help pay tuition, which generally ranges from $10,000 to $18,000 a year.
Robinson said some students came to Canterbury after they were placed on waiting lists for district programs. Others were unhappy with their neighborhood school. And some enrolled in the middle school after attending a district elementary school.
Also, some private schools offer things the district can't compete with, whether it's religious training or a specialized curriculum. Nicole Wilson, director of Montessori by the Sea in Pass-a-Grille, said the school lost a couple of families to Gulf Beaches Elementary but gained others.
"Our core families are looking for a Montessori education," she said.
Christopoulos said that for the first time this year, the district asked for a list of students enrolled in his Plato schools. Maybe his students will start getting recruitment mail from the district, he joked.
But he isn't worried, he said. "It's important to have all these different choices for the parents."
Grego said it will take time to build enrollment in new programs or change the reputations of certain schools.
"I had a number of parents say . . . 'I really like this concept, but it's a new program and I'm a little hesitant,' " he said. "And I get that."
This year, new programs attracted 181 students from outside the traditional school system, according to district figures. Many more came from other district schools.
East Lake High School's new middle school engineering program drew 390 students this year. Of those, 41 came from outside district schools and eight from charter schools. Gulf Beaches drew 296 students this year. Of those, 58 first- through fifth-graders had never been in district schools. Three came from charters.
In its rush to add new programs, the district could be competing with itself.
John Hopkins Middle, which is to add a new IB middle years program, is less than two miles from a similar program at Sanderlin K-8. When Gulf Beaches closed in 2009, Azalea Elementary School received some of its students. This year the flow reversed, with Azalea losing 91 students.
Lawrence said those moves can create space for new programs. Sandy Lane Elementary School, just around the corner from Kings Highway, lost more than 100 students this year. But soon, Grego plans to turn Sandy Lane into a performing arts magnet similar to the popular Perkins Elementary School in St. Petersburg.
"I'm very excited about those possibilities," Grego said.
Contact Cara Fitzpatrick at [email protected] Follow @fitz_ly.