It used to be that they didn't have to work so hard. Pinellas County would open a school, and students would enroll.
Charter schools, private schools — they're the ones who had to put their work in. Shiny brochures, weekly information fairs, promises of longer school days, gender-segregated classrooms and Montessori philosophies.
But the game is changing. Increased competition for students, declining enrollment in the middle grades, and a need to offer more attractive options to families is leading Pinellas County Schools to open new magnet programs at four middle schools next fall.
Rather than expect kids to show up, Pinellas is aggressively marketing the bells and whistles of the new-and-improved schools at special events. The school system plans to mail out postcards this week to families they're hoping will bite.
"It's important in this day and age, with competition in public education, that we have to do this," said Bill Lawrence, the district's director of student demographics, assignment and school capacity. "Some of our children are choosing other options, so it's important we do it."
Amie Hornbaker, a new district communications specialist, said, "We try not to say we're selling (to parents), but essentially, we are. We're letting them know, what's in it for you and your child."
Pinellas is opening application programs at Tarpon Springs, Pinellas Park and Azalea middle schools, as well as adding middle-school classrooms on the East Lake High School campus for a new application program. All are scheduled to open next fall, meaning students will start applying soon.
Pinellas Park will get a Pre-Cambridge program, emphasizing advanced academics and global learning. The district is targeting students currently zoned for Largo, Morgan Fitzgerald, Oak Grove, Osceola and Seminole middle schools (and, of course, Pinellas Park), hoping to add 264 students to the application program.
Azalea Middle's new program will focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, drawing 264 students from Bay Point, John Hopkins, Meadowlawn and Tyrone middle schools.
East Lake will also recruit technology-minded students, but from Carwise, Dunedin Highlands, Palm Harbor, Safety Harbor and Tarpon middles. Meanwhile, Tarpon Springs' Leadership Conservatory for the Arts and new Pre-Cambridge program is expected to draw students from the same schools.
All three middle schools receiving new programs could accommodate more students than they currently do, but are not significantly under-enrolled.
Enrollment has been declining in Pinellas schools for decades, and part of the reason these schools are not emptier is that other schools have closed. Southside Fundamental Middle, which closed in 2009, was re-opened as a charter school this year. The school system saw enrollment drops in grades five, six and seven this school year.
However, the district's top-performing middle schools are overcrowded, and Lawrence said the shake-up could relieve the strain at schools like Palm Harbor Middle.
"We want to get to a level playing field where all middle schools have capacity for their zoned students but children are going where they want to and they're happy," he said.
The new programs also create feeder patterns into the district's high school programs, and could shore up those as well. For example, the pre-Cambridge program at Pinellas Park will feed into the Cambridge Advanced International Certificate of Education magnets at Dixie Hollins and Clearwater high schools.
Susan Keller, the principal at Tarpon Springs Middle, said that many of her students want to attend the International Baccalaureate programs at Largo or St. Petersburg High. "We'd like to prepare our students to be ready for any program they want," she said.
Lawrence and other school staff attended two information fairs last week, and several open houses have been planned at these middle schools and East Lake.
"It's really evident this new attention to (promoting these schools) is really paying off," Lawrence said. "It's a step up from what we've done in the past ... We're helping them match to a program where they feel more involved, more engaged. When they're not involved and not engaged, that's where we're losing kids."
Contact Lisa Gartner at [email protected]