Miami-Dade Schools

Miami-Dade schools enrollment up because of charter growth

Student enrollment has increased by the thousands this year in Miami-Dade schools -- charter schools, that is.

Daily attendance counts show that district-wide enrollment has crept back up this year closer to 350,000. But traditional school enrollment is actually down. The bump in attendance comes solely from a 4,600-plus increase in the number of students attending charter schools.

Figures taken last week show Miami-Dade charter schools now serve 52,000 students, equal to 15 percent of the county’s public student body. That’s a significant total considering the latest study of charter school enrollment by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools said that just two years ago only one U.S. district -- Los Angeles -- oversaw a charter network of at least 50,000.

“It’s a big number, and it’s time for everyone to look at what they’re doing” in Miami-Dade, said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for the Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools. “I really think it’s due to a combination of innovation, customer service, and the ability to tweak a program and give parents and kids what they want. No one is assigned to a charter school.”

Charter enrollment has increased each year recently in Miami-Dade, which ranked sixth in U.S. districts in terms of charter school populations in 2011-2012, the last time numbers were compiled. Charter schools receive taxpayer dollars per student like traditional public schools, and are often viewed as school district competitors. They are run by independent governing boards and sometimes are managed by for-profit companies.

This year in Miami-Dade, there are 128 charter schools, an increase over last year even though the number of applications to open them has dropped by more than 50 percent in the last two years.

A school-by-school enrollment count shows much of the district’s charter school enrollment spike occurred at about 20 existing or new schools, like the new, Academica-run iMater schools. The largest boost took place at Keys Gate, a two-school, K-12 campus in Homestead that added its first graduating class this year and grew by about 500 students.

“You’ve got 3,300 students, and their parents are making a decision to move from a traditional school to a charter school environment,” said David McKnight, principal of both Keys Gate schools and a regional director for Charter Schools USA. “Parents choose us because we have personal learning plans, a sound education model, and we support and embrace parental involvement.”

Charter schools’ success does however come with consequences for the school district.

For every new charter school that’s up for school board approval, for instance, the district outlines how many students, dollars and teachers the district will lose. The district also has to police and oversee charter schools, which remains a challenge, in part because while some are thriving there are a few that have failed.

In the meantime, Miami-Dade district schools appear to have lost about 2,000 students this year, which could be confirmed once an official enrollment count is taken later this month. District Spokesman John Schuster noted Florida’s “favorable environment” for charters, which he pointed out aren’t required to take certain students, like children with special needs.

“Competition is a healthy thing, but the field should be leveled where requirements are concerned,” he wrote in an email.

Nina Reiss, president of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, however, said she gets the impression that Miami-Dade has responded to charter school competition by improving the schools it runs. Superintendent Alberto Carvalho has made school choice a staple of the district, and magnet programs, which topped 53,000 students last year, continue to expand.

“It looks like a lot of students are leaving the district to go to charter schools,” said Reiss. “But over time what’s been refreshing is the openness to options and the approach to choices for families.”

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