Nationwide charter school enrollment surpassed 2 million for the first time last academic year after adding 200,000 additional students in 2011-2012. Almost every state with a charter school program is showing enrollment increases, as the publicly-funded yet privately-run schools continue to gain support all over the country.
New Mexico is no exception. The growth in charter enrollment in the state has been steady, with the latest numbers from the fall of 2011 showing that about 1.5% of all students in the state are enrolled in charters. In raw numbers, charters hosted about 1,500 kids during the 2011-2012 school year compared to the 1,300 they hosted the year before.
The numbers are a little deceptive. Most of the state’s charters are concentrated in the North, especially in and around Albuquerque, where 2.4% of the total student body attends charter schools. Enrollment rates in the South are much lower, and only 11 charters operate there.
Many charter schools serve “unique clientele,” Hegwer said, like recent immigrants or students interested in the arts.
“Most of the charter schools have populations that aren’t being served at traditional schools,” said Irene Oliver-Lewis, founder of Alma d’arte Charter School in Las Cruces. The art-focused school began with 124 freshmen and sophomores in 2004 and has grown to 190 students spanning all four grades. Other charter schools focus on English language learners or bilingual education, like La Academia Dolores Huerta and the New America School. Those emphases and specific missions are a key draw for families, parents say.
For many parents, it is the availability of choice that is the biggest positive of the charter school movement. For Kathleen Albers, for example, a smaller charter like Alma d’arte made a lot of sense for her daughter who was an introvert and thrived in a more intimate academic environment. Her son, on the other hand, had a much easier time among a large number of classmates, so he attends the nearby Las Cruces High School, a high-enrollment traditional public school. Albers says that she was glad that the small arts-focused school was around when it came time for her daughter to choose where to enroll. Its focus on art and the small size played right into her daughter’s strengths.
Parents often turn to charter schools for their small classroom environments and more individualized attention, said Eric Ahner, director of Aldo Leopold. Garland Courts said he appreciated that his daughter was a “big fish in a small pond” as a 2010 Alma d’arte graduate.”It’s nice to have that alternative — small school, smaller student body,” he said. All three parents said they appreciated having another option for their families. “It’s expanding school choice for families, and, in my mind, that’s the greatest thing charter schools offer families,” Ahner said.