‘Choice schools’ become the norm in Miami-Dade

When classes start Monday, more than half of the students in Miami-Dade County will stream into a school they and their families picked themselves.

With charter schools, magnet schools and advanced-curriculum programs open to students across the district, schools no longer have captive audiences — students who must attend a particular school because of where they live.

The trend toward school choice in Miami-Dade has been accelerated by steadily increasing competition from charter schools. In response, the school district has launched ads on TV and in movie theaters, and established its own marketing office. It has launched more choice programs than ever, with 52 debuting this year alone.

“Rather than complain about the incoming tsunami of choice, we’re going to ride it,” said Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho.

School choice proponents say the competition has forced schools to offer innovative programs that cater to students’ wants and businesses’ needs.

“I don’t think students should be treated as cookie cutters or factory workers,” said Sean Gallagan, principal of a new, high-tech magnet school launching this year.

Others caution that access to choice programs can be uneven, and the hype about specialized schools could lead to a perception that traditional schools are inferior.

“We can’t leave a school or a family or a community behind because we’re trying to enhance different spaces,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade union.

Every year since at least 2010, the number of students in charter schools has increased. During the 2010-11 school year, about 35,000 children were enrolled in charter schools. This school year, the estimated enrollment in Miami-Dade charter schools is almost 56,000.

“I think that definitely the charters are a catalyst for improving the options that are out there for the public school system,” said Lynn Norman-Teck, spokeswoman for Florida Consortium of Public Charter Schools.

The number of students in district-run choice programs has also steadily increased for at least the past four years. The greatest number of students in choice programs attend magnet schools — about 16 percent.

The number of students in these programs has exploded, in part because the number of programs has rapidly grown, too.

In 2007, Miami-Dade offered fewer than 300 choice programs. This school year, students and parents have almost 500 to choose from.

“You don’t want any family to think: ‘This is the school I have to go to, and I’m trapped,’ ” said Robert Strickland, Miami-Dade’s administrative director of the school choice and parental options department. “Kids do better when they are in schools they want to be in.”

Choice programs welcome students from around the county. They may offer an advanced curriculum, such as the Cambridge program, backed by the university of the same name in the United Kingdom — or an international high school degree recognized by Spain, Italy and France. In most cases in Miami-Dade, choice schools take the form of a magnet program.

Consider it the latest evolution of the magnet school, which were originally opened as a way to voluntarily integrate racially segregated schools. School systems hoped to do that by offering attractive programming and opening the doors to all students — regardless of where they lived.

This year, the district touts two high school magnet programs in particular: Biotech at Richmond Heights and iTech at Miami Edison.

At both schools, every student will be given a digital tablet to take home. Biotech offers laboratory settings that are the envy of some universities, as well as the opportunity to work with scientists at Zoo Miami and Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden. By senior year, it is hoped the students will publish their own original research projects, said Vice Principal Daniel Mateo.

“No one is going to do what we’re going to do,” he said.

At iTech, the aim is to get students ready for business careers in the tech world. There won’t be uniforms — instead, business attire is mandatory. The students will use 3D printers, unmanned flying devices and computer systems used by major companies.

“It makes learning real,” said Gallagan, the principal.

The reasons parents choose to send their kids to a charter, advanced curriculum or magnet school are as varied as the schools themselves.

Parents who answered a Miami Herald inquiry through the Public Insight Network, a group of experts and readers who contribute to the newspaper’s reporting, said they were looking for academic rigor, smaller classes or programs tailored to their children’s interests. Many said they have kids in multiple systems — for example, one student in a magnet school and another in a charter school.

Luisa Torres’ youngest child goes to Doral Academy, a charter school. She was looking for a class schedule that would allow her son to take more electives that interest him and opportunities to play sports.

On the other hand, her high-school-age son attends the magnet program at Coral Reef High School, which bills itself as “Miami’s Mega-Magnet High School.” A former teacher from his charter middle school recommended the program, saying it would play to his strengths in language arts.

Being able to pick schools that cater to her sons’ different educational needs has led to better academic outcomes, Torres said.

“If they were in regular curriculum, they would have made their teachers crazy and they would have so much extra time that they would have conduct problems,” Torres said. “They would have been bored, not challenged enough.”

Choosing where to send her sons wasn’t easy, she admitted. Torres said she spent hours scouring the school district’s websites, talking to other moms and filling out applications for the magnet programs. Once her son was accepted by Coral Reef, finding a way to get him to the school, which is about 15 miles from their home in Doral, was a challenge. She now carpools with other nearby families.

One of the knocks on choice programs is that they may favor students who have parents like Diaz: those who are involved, can navigate sometimes-complicated school systems and have the means to provide transportation to and from school, since busing is typically not provided to students in choice programs. With limited public transportation options across a county bigger than Rhode Island and Delaware, some Miami-Dade students simply can’t travel to highly sought-after schools.

Recognizing this, Superintendent Carvalho said the district would continue to push its parent academy. The program teaches parents job skills as well as civic skills, including how to deal with the school district.

Additionally, the district has replicated its most successful magnets across the county. For example, the district opened a MAST academy in Homestead — about 40 miles away from the original maritime and science technology school in Virginia Key. Each year, the Virginia Key program typically gets 1,200 applications for about 120 open seats.

When an expansion of the program in Virginia Key was approved in 2012, parents nearby complained they couldn’t get their kids into the high school — forcing them to travel longer distances. Eventually, the district agreed to set aside some seats for local students, but School Board member Raquel Regalado said more needs to be done to make sure students can go to the schools closest to them.

“I believe we have an obligation to those neighborhoods, as our county grows, to provide nearby schools,” Regalado said.

She warned that so much school choice — the superintendent has said he wants a choice program available in every school eventually — could eat away at the property tax base that funds the district.

Others caution that the district should not lose focus on traditional neighborhood schools, which are the best option for some kids. With glossy brochures and advertising campaigns behind many magnet programs, Ingram, the president of the teachers union, said the district has to avoid the perception that neighborhood schools are inferior.

“It is the evolution of the public school. But in that evolution, we must be fair and we must be equitable to everyone,” Ingram said. “We educate everybody.”

Related stories from Miami Herald