Charter Growth Boosts Student Enrollment in Miami-Dade Schools

In Miami-Dade schools in Florida, student enrollment isn't experiencing shrinking enrollment like much of the country. In fact, the district, which is the fourth largest school district in the United States, has increased in size this year — mainly due to the growth in charter schools.

In 2013, district-wide enrollment reached close to 350,000, daily attendance counts show. Traditional school enrollment was down, but a 4,600-plus increase in the number of students attending charter schools increased district-wide enrollment, according to David Smiley of Miami Herald.

Miami-Dade charter schools are currently serving 52,000 students, equal to 15% of the county's public student body, according to school district data. The latest study of charter school enrollment by the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools shows that two years ago Los Angeles was the only U.S. district that 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."

The latest data shows that charter enrollment has increased each year recently in Miami-Dade, which ranked sixth in U.S. districts in terms of charter school population in 2011-2012. Charter schools are viewed by most traditional public schools as school district competitors. They receive taxpayer dollars per student like traditional public schools but are run by independent governing boards and in some cases are managed by for-profit companies.

Currently, there are 128 charter schools in Miami-Dade, an increase over last year. However, the district may be nearing a saturation point, as the number of applications to open charter schools has dropped by more than 50% 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."

For the school district, charter schools' success does come with consequences. The district loses students, dollars and teachers for every new charter school. In addition, the district are responsible for overseeing charter schools, which remains a challenge, in part because while some are thriving there are a few that have failed.

In 2013, Miami-Dade district schools appear to have lost about 2,000 students, 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 said.

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