Nearly 900 eighth-graders have left the Sunnyside Unified School District since 2006 to attend private or charter schools - costing the district about $3 million in state funding.
And the Tucson Unified School District - the largest in the city - has lost about 8,300 students to charters over five years - some 3 percent of its enrollment. Such losses would have cost the district an estimated $36 million in state funding, although officials say some of the students have returned.
TUSD has tried for years to find ways to stop the hemorrhaging - bulking up its niche programs, studying who's leaving for where, and advertising its extracurriculars to parents and students. Last year, the district budgeted almost $420,000 for school-choice exploration. The initiative encourages schools to transform, offering a special focus or learning model that would draw in and retain students.
Now Sunnyside is thinking about how to stop the losses. Administrators have come up with a $213,300 plan to keep eighth-graders from leaving by loaning laptops this summer to qualifying students and enrolling them in a college-prep program. Teachers will receive laptops and the district will begin an online learning program and look into providing area families free Internet service.
Among the eighth-graders leaving Sunnyside are top students whose parents are seeking smaller class sizes, innovative teaching and assurances that their children will become college graduates. Last school year, 30 such students enrolled as freshmen at San Miguel High School, a Catholic college preparatory; and 25 at Alta Vista High School, part of the Leona Group, which is one of the largest charter-school groups in Arizona.
Marisela Tapia left Desert View her freshman year for Alta Vista, where she is now a junior. Her sister, Maritza, 15, is a sophomore at the school.
"My mom heard about this school from other parents who had their kids here. She wanted me to try it because she heard it was a good school, so I did and I really like it," said Tapia, 17.
"I like the environment. It is really positive, and I feel teachers here really care about their students. They are not here just because it is a job," said Tapia, who is enrolled in honors English, economics and chemistry. "At Desert View I just felt like I was just another student, another number. There are teachers there who care, but I feel I get more one-on-one time with the teachers here at Alta Vista."
In addition to her studies, Tapia also is on the school's volleyball team, is a member of the National Honor Society, and serves on the prom committee and student council.
Arizona's charter-school movement began 15 years ago with a vision to boost student achievement in low-income areas where kids were doing poorly, said Stephanie Grisham, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Charter Schools Association.
Now Arizona ranks second in the nation with 502 charter schools, making up roughly 25 percent of all public schools in the state, Grisham said.
And Arizona will have even more charters soon. The state will receive $53.7 million from the federal government over the next five years to help open 92 new charter schools.
Nationally, more low-income and minority parents are removing their children from traditional public schools that chronically underperform, said Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that advocates for school choice.
The 2009 Annual Survey of America's Charter Schools shows that parents like that charter schools offer performance pay for teachers, are significantly smaller than most public schools, and have a specified educational approach or theme.
"Districts just haven't been able to provide the education an ever-growing group of parents show they want for their kids," Allen wrote in an e-mail. "School districts must make real changes, and not just rebrand themselves, to stay competitive."
Sunnyside administrators say they're serious about making real changes. They're expanding a giveaway laptop computer program to the district's five middle schools through the 8th-Grade Digital Scholars program. Some 500 students are expected to participate, officials say.
In addition to receiving loaner laptops for the summer, students who have a 3.0 GPA, 95 percent attendance this semester, participation in an extracurricular activity and no suspensions also will participate in a summer college preparatory program at Sunnyside High School or Desert View. They then will receive a laptop to keep in ninth grade, and enroll in honors courses.
Also, 300 students whose families can't afford Internet service will be eligible for free Internet. The service will be provided through the district in partnership with Cox Communications and the Sunnyside Foundation, a nonprofit that provides educational resources to the district. Of Sunnyside's 18,000 students, 81 percent come from low-income families.
In March, 1,500 teachers will receive laptops and begin training for instruction in the classroom, which will be phased in at the elementary and middle schools. Also, one fifth-grade class in each of the 14 elementary schools will be provided with laptops for online learning.
This student retention effort is being paid for through state and federal monies. The district needs to raise $70,000 for the free Internet plan, which is proposed to be handled through the foundation. Administrators will apply for grants for the long-range plans.
These upgrades will help bridge the digital divide for students and the Sunnyside community, in turn strengthening families in 21st century skills, Superintendent Manuel L. Isquierdo said.
The district has other ideas, too. Among the long-range plans:
• Providing all teachers with projectors to use in the classroom in conjunction with their laptops.
• Approving a dropout recovery program that offers returning students online classes to graduate. The district wants dropouts to return to its classrooms rather than to charter schools.
• Connecting district families to businesses that provide free Internet or sponsor the district's Digital Advantage program. In exchange, those businesses may be able to advertise on school buses and on the district Web site.
• Improving broadband wiring to bring Internet access to all 21district schools.
The district has awarded 844 high school students with laptops since the 2008 launch of the Digital Advantage Program, a $1.2 million student incentive program to increase the graduation rate. Next month, nearly 500 more freshmen from Sunnyside and Desert View are set to receive a laptop at a UA ceremony. The four-year initiative is sponsored by businesses, organizations and district employees.
"We have to become more accountable and give quality education," said Isquierdo, who recently was named one of the nation's 10 Tech-Savvy Superintendents of the Year by eSchool News. "It is discouraging to lose some of our best and brightest students after eighth grade to private and charter schools. We cannot take for granted that just because students live in our district that they will go to our schools."
The incentive is attractive to future high school students like Jesus Aguilar Jr., an eighth-grader at Lauffer Middle School, 5385 E. Littletown Road. One recent day, Aguilar was working on his science fair project with a school laptop.
"I'm excited about this program because with a laptop I can get my projects done," he said. He said he plans to attend Desert View and go on to college to study mechanical engineering.
His mother, Blasita Aguilar, said the retention program is important because it motivates students and helps families, such as hers, that are struggling because of the economy and cannot afford laptops or Internet service.
Lauffer student Karla Garfio has a 3.7 GPA and a laptop, and hopes her parents let her attend Desert View. Her goal is to be accepted at an out-of-state university and become a pediatric surgeon. "I know what I want and my mind is set," she said.
Her father, Michael Fierro, wants his daughter to attend TUSD's University High School, which is for intellectually gifted students. "We need to sit down as a family and discuss our options, and I need to see what Desert View has to offer her because I know that's where she would be happy."
Officials at most of Tucson's other large school districts say they don't see charter losses as a problem.
The Vail Unified School District - hailed as one of the fastest-growing school districts in Arizona - has even opened two charter schools of its own.
Last school year the district saw 37 students leave for a charter school, but the three years prior it lost, on average 73 students.
Officials at most of the other area districts said they don't even track how many of their students leave for charter schools.
At TUSD, 1,652 students left for charter schools this year. Last year, 1,726 students transferred out citing the same reason.
However, TUSD has managed to pick up 968 students from charter schools during those two school years combined.
"You have to keep it in perspective," said TUSD statistics guru David Scott. "The transactions associated with charter schools (both in and out) account for less than 3 percent of the total enrollment/transfers of students.
"TUSD still educates more students than all of the charter schools in Pima County combined."
Still, the district is especially concerned by the number of students who leave between elementary and middle school, said Donna Lewis, director of middle schools for TUSD.
"Parents are going through a transition almost as much as the kids are during that time, and moving kids around is scary," Lewis said. "Even when my own kids were getting ready to go to middle school, I said to the principal, 'I don't think they're ready,' and she held my hand and said, 'They'll be fine.' "
She believes parents are looking for an intimate relationship with a school and some feel they can't get that in a large district. "The importance of a family relationship is something we are really focused on," she said.
Also, she said, "We have a greater breadth of music, art and athletic programs. I invite any parent to walk through any school and you'll be amazed at the things going on in the classrooms."
TUSD Assistant Superintendent Maggie Shafer, who oversees elementary schools, sees the availability of charter schools as healthy competition. "I hope it has helped us keep on our toes because in the end all we want is for students in Tucson to get a great education," she said.
But that doesn't mean TUSD doesn't want to win. One way to do that, Shafer said, is through the district's new First Choice Schools program, which provide a specialized focus that is compelling enough to draw a range of students.
Options may include OMA Gold schools, International Baccalaureate schools, artful learning schools, Montessori schools and Reggio Emelia schools.
"We do want students to chose our programs over charter schools," Shafer said. "As we continue to develop our First Choice programs, families will see we have a lot to offer."
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DID YOU KNOW
Charter schools are public schools that serve as alternatives to traditional districts.
Star reporters Andrea Rivera and Lourdes Medrano contributed to this story. Contact reporters Carmen Duarte at 573-4104 or firstname.lastname@example.org, and Alexis Huicochea at 573-4175 or email@example.com