Enticing enrollment
Arizona Republic
Aug 8, 2008


Elementary schools explore new programs

by Ofelia Madrid - Aug. 8, 2008 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic

A few years ago, Scottsdale's Pueblo Elementary School student population was shrinking.

Condominium conversions and the neighborhood's aging demographics had left about 470 students at the school built for 700.

Principal Terri Kellen devised a plan.

Attract students from outside the Scottsdale Unified School District and possibly bring back students who had left by offering a program that teaches Spanish to native English-speaking students. Students spend half their day learning in Spanish.

In its second year, Pueblo's foreign-language immersion program has revitalized the central Scottsdale school. Enrollment is expected to be around 550 students.

"We couldn't honestly expect more," Kellen said recently as she prepared for Monday's first day of school.

Now more than ever, school districts are looking into developing specialty programs for elementary schools.

Part of the reason competition to keep and attract students exists stems from the state's enrollment payments of about $5,000 per student for the school year. The enrollment payments are the schools' largest source of funding.

It's not just foreign language programs that schools are exploring. There's a focus on math and science, while others are taking a more global approach.

"Families want more choices," said Judi Willis, a spokeswoman with the Paradise Valley Unified School District.

"We believe we can provide those choices, so parents keep their children in our schools," Willis said.

Paradise Valley's Quail Run Elementary School, recently finished its first year of a five-year process to become one of the Valley's first International Baccalaureate elementary school.

The program is more commonly known at the high-school level, as a rigorous academic program where students are able to earn college credit. At the elementary level, IB is called the primary years program, Willis said.

Whispering Wind Academy, also in the Paradise Valley district, is a STEM school, so-called for its focus on science, technology, engineering, math and global geography.

Programs honored

The Arizona Educational Foundation, a non-profit organization that evaluates schools for excellence, started honoring specialty or signature programs about four years ago.

Bobbie O'Boyle, the foundation's executive director, said schools must look beyond the basics.

"Schools that simply strive to meet the standards aren't going to be out there and developing cutting edge programs," she said.

But O'Boyle cautions that schools must know its population and needs.

Honors pay off

Desert Willow Elementary, in the Cave Creek Unified School District, was honored this year by the foundation as an A+ Exemplary Program for its Spanish immersion program.

Principal Jana Miller said when the program started six years ago, she had to beg parents to put their children in the program.

"Now based on the success of the kids and how well they're doing academically, lots of people want their children in our program," Miller said.

Today, more than 300 students, about half the school, preschool through fifth grade are immersed in Spanish for half of the day.

"We have a lottery for the program, with waiting lists at all levels," Miller said.

Scottsdale's Pueblo Elementary was one of the first to copy the program.

Ultimately, the focus on a specialty allowed teachers to hone their skills in the core subjects.

"It's enhanced everything else about our school," Miller said.