Parents educate selves on school choice

School choice. It sounds like a simple concept, that families have a choice where their kids go to school. But what does that mean exactly? How does school choice work in Brevard County?

Hundreds of students and parents huddled around tables and special displays Saturday at the Brevard County Schools Program Expo to find the answer to that question, and to achieve their secondary mission: with application deadlines fast approaching, to choose the perfect elementary, middle or high school to attend next year.

Of the county’s 82 schools, six are pure “choice” schools where every student must apply to attend. The focus of each of these schools is unique. One of the most popular choice schools with beachside residents is West Shore Junior-Senior High School in Melbourne. Amid the school choice information on West Shore’s website is a description of the concept. “The design of the school accommodates acceleration opportunities with a strong college preparatory curriculum; therefore, all students must be at or above grade level.”

There are also more than 60 specialty programs throughout Brevard County schools that students might gravitate to, ranging from fashion design to the arts, to intensive math and science.

“The purpose really, in my mind, is for students to have the opportunity to find what they are passionate about,” said Stephanie Archer said, the district’s assistant superintendent for equity, innovation and choice.

While school choice has long been an option in many counties, including Brevard, Florida last year passed a law ordering all school districts to initiate “controlled open enrollment.” That law stated that parents can enroll their children in any school they want, as long as there is room. Previously, choice programs were generally limited to magnet schools and specialty programs with a lottery system.

The first applications for the six choice schools are due no later than Dec. 8, while the application window for other programs opens in January.

School district officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for numbers associated with school choice and open enrollment, including how many students participate and how much the programs cost each year.

Archer said it can take anywhere from a few thousand dollars to $250,000 to establish a specialty program. Ongoing costs are lower, she said. The programs are funded by the county, state and sometimes private donations or grants. Partnerships with local businesses, corporations and organizations are another way to support the specialized curriculums.

Options include career and technical programs like building construction and criminal justice, advanced academic programs such as Cambridge and International Baccalaureate, STEAM programs that focus on science and the arts, as well as career academies and magnet schools. Students can focus on everything from international studies in kindergarten to advanced engineering in high school. Teenagers can, along with working toward their high school diploma, earn certifications in things like computer programming, web design and even get a private pilot’s license.

Satellite High School’s Academy of Fine Arts includes programs in music, design, theater, visual arts and digital media. Janet Gray, who teaches fashion design at Satellite, said parents sometimes think such programs are an easy out for students. But Gray said that’s not the case, at least according to her students.

“They’ll tell me sometimes that my class is harder than their other classes,” she said, emphasizing that fashion design students have to focus on problem-solving and collaboration.

Archer said some of the specialty programs locally were started at schools that were in danger of closing – or already had – due to lack of students or other issues. For example, district officials have said they will look at adding programs at Gemini Elementary to bolster that Melbourne Beach school’s declining enrollment because closing Gemini is not an option due to its geography.

There are two main reasons parents choose to send their children outside of their neighborhood school zone, Archer said. One is to attend a specialty program. That choice is known as an “Educational Program Option,” or EPO, and many of those programs still have a lottery system and/or more extensive application processes. The other is an “Educational Location Option,” or ELO, which falls more closely under the state law passed last year. For example, Archer said, elementary parents might want their students to attend a school closer to where they work or one that is more convenient for their childcare provider.

Archer said the EPO choices allow students to be exposed to different career opportunities, college choices, job training and intensive academic programs.

“In many cases, if we’re talking about our career and technical education programs, they can earn an industry certification,” she said. “That industry certification is a great way for them to get their foot in the door with an employer.”

Career and technical education programs have especially gained footing in recent years as education experts encourage schools to prepare kids for both careers and college. According to a recent study by the Brookings Institute, students who complete CTE programs in high school generally have higher earnings, especially if they continue on to more advanced training, certifications, college or other post-secondary programs

Meanwhile, interest in advanced academic programs has also increased as parents and students look for a leg up entering college. Melbourne High School’s International Baccalaureate Program has about 200 students enrolled. Through advanced core academic classes, they focus on international studies, foreign language and independent research.

Transportation is one of the biggest hurdles of choice programs. Brevard County stopped providing transportation for kids outside of their neighborhood school boundaries four years ago, due to funding. A plan is currently in the works to provide transportation to choice students again starting next school year, through a system of hubs where children will be dropped off and then bused to other schools throughout the county. Transportation will only be available to those who are on an EPO placement.

Opponents of school choice have said the lack of transportation creates a situation where some students don’t have the opportunity to take advantage of advanced programs. Archer agreed.

“The challenge in the last couple of years has been transportation,” Archer said. “With that the students whose parents had the wherewithal to take them back and forth were the students that had the wherewithal to take advantage of that. And that is not equitable.”

Tristan Jackson, a 15-year-old sophomore who lives in Satellite Beach, chose as a freshman to enter the aviation program at Eau Gallie High School. Jackson originally enrolled in the private pilot track, but later switched to the aviation maintenance curriculum. “I could see myself doing it as a job,” he said. “Whenever I go to school I’m always bored. With maintenance, it’s hands on.”

Bill McInnish, the instructor in charge of the Eau Gallie program, said students have the opportunity to be placed with employers right of out high school or go on to college. The school has three aircraft donated for students to work on, and is currently building a new hangar on campus.

Parents and students interested in more information about school choice applications should contact the Brevard Public Schools Office of Equity, Innovation and Choice, or visit their website at www.eic.brevardschool.org.    

Correspondent: Jan Wesner Childs

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