Cross-boundary enrollments boosting Kyrene attendance for ‘05 school year

By Don Kirkland

If yours are among the estimated 18,000-plus children returning to school Aug. 9, don’t be surprised if they’ve never seen the kid sitting next to them. More than 400 out-of-district students will be enrolled in Kyrene classrooms this year, not to mention an estimated 1,300 from within the district who will be attending classes in a Kyrene school other than their own.

It’s all part of the district’s efforts to take advantage of state-mandated open enrollment policies, which allow students from other communities to attend any school they wish, depending on the availability of transportation and the desired school having enough room to accommodate them.

“We’ve been deluged,” said one district staffer responsible for funneling applications. “It’s just been crazy around here.” Kyrene schools have added teachers and extended bus service outside the district in order to accommodate the influx of students taking advantage of open enrollment, many of whom will be coming from the Roosevelt district in south Phoenix and from the town of Maricopa.

“As soon as parents in (those communities)  hear their kids can attend a Kyrene school, they pick up the phone and call us.”

Open enrollment isn’t the only strategy Kyrene schools are using this year to compete for students. For the first time, a fully accredited Montessori program will be available, part of a newly expanded campus at Kyrene del Norte Elementary School.

“Right now we are working on facility enhancements (at Norte) to make it as traditional a Montessori campus as possible,” says Johnny Cruz, a spokesman for the Kyrene School District.

The fee-based Montessori program is open to ages as young as 3 and features multi-grade classrooms with several teachers, along with an emphasis on children staying with the same group until they transition into traditional classes at age 6. Importance also is placed on use of the outdoors as a learning environment, which is one of the reasons for the campus improvements at Norte, according to Cruz.

If initial response is any indicator, the pilot program at Norte seems almost certain to lead to the establishment of similar programs at other Kyrene schools. The initial launch, which was engineered mostly by word of mouth, resulted in full enrollment at Norte, with parents now on a waiting list for a second program due to get under way in October.

Cruz says the development of a Montessori program represents a departure from conventional thinking and a demonstration of the Kyrene district’s commitment to consider non-traditional alternatives.

“Community reaction has been tremendously positive,” he said. “We’ve had more interest than we can even accommodate,  which is good news from the vantage point that the community seems to value (this kind of  programming).”

To prepare for the launch of its Montessori offering, Cruz says, the district has redesigned designated Norte classrooms and hired special, “triple-certified” teachers; that is, those accredited by Montessori, by the state certification process and by No Child Left Behind, which has its own unique set of requirements.

Fees for the program range from $500 a month for 3- to 4-year-olds attending full-day classes to $250 a month for 5-year-olds. Childcare is available from 6:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

Although district planners didn’t know fully what to expect when they announced the program,  Cruz says, they had to cut off enrollment and conduct a lottery for available seats.

Despite a lack of heavy promotion for the program, he said, news of its impending arrival quickly got out.  “It was all from word of mouth and enough energy that (the program) created,” he said. “We’re just pleased that people are responding so well.”

Also different this year will be the start of new reading and math curriculum, approved by the board last spring and now being implemented.

The changes, which evolved after a year-long, cooperative effort among teachers and parents, represents adjustments that will bring Kyrene schools into compatibility with state standards of district-wide uniformity and consistency, according to Cruz.

To get ready for the start of school on Aug. 9, Kyrene District schools reopened for new-student enrollment July 26. Meet-the-Teacher Nights will be held at all middle schools from 5 to 7 p.m. Aug. 4 and at all elementary schools from 5:30 to 7 p.m. Aug. 5.

Despite some financial setbacks based on the economy several years ago, Kyrene officials say they’re pleased with the prospects for the coming school year.

“We hired more than a dozen extra teachers in grades 2 and 3, and we provided increases in compensation to staff across the board,” says Cruz.

There were no significant cuts in any programs as a result of budget planning that started in January, he said, “and overall we are pleased with the results.”

Still to come: a new initiative that ties local businesses more closely to their schools through partnerships and other programs. Plans for that program are expected to be released in the next month or so.