Innovations in Education: Creating Strong District School Choice Programs
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Mesa Public Schools

District Demographics
Enrollment 74,366
Enrollment Trend Down
Number of Schools 89
Population Type Urban fringe/suburban
Subsidized Meals 40%
English Learners 7%
Special Needs 8%

Parents in Mesa, located in the Greater Phoenix area of Arizona, experience many forms of choice in a state that was rated first of 50 on the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research 2001 Educational Freedom Index. With a strong charter school law enacted in 1994, Arizona had 492 charter schools by fall 2003, sponsored by either the state or a local school district. Low-income students may apply for the privately funded scholarships supported by the state's education tax credit. Both intradistrict and interdistrict open enrollment are mandatory.

In this environment, Mesa Public Schools actively seeks input from its stakeholders and pays close attention to what it learns. The open enrollment program allows parents to choose a variety of specialty, magnet, or alternative schools, with about 5 percent of students choosing schools outside their neighborhood. Specialized schools include the district's alternative schools and the East Valley Academy, which draws on strong community partnerships to prepare students who plan to become health care workers, attend technical school or community college, or enter the military.

Especially popular are the four Benjamin Franklin campuses that provide highly structured, traditional education. An initial Benjamin Franklin school, established in 1978 through the efforts of parents who wanted a more traditional program, drew such long waiting lines for registration that the district moved to set up three more campuses in other parts of the city. To compete with similar charter schools, the district added regular bus service to the Benjamin Franklin schools. Now both parents and students at these schools give especially high satisfaction ratings on the annual district surveys.

More recently, an International Baccalaureate program was established at a high school with a decreasing population, to better support student learning and to draw students from across the district to fill the campus.

These examples illustrate Mesa's deliberate approach to planning. The district studies data, listens to parents, and acts to meet the needs of the diverse population. When 19 of the district's 89 schools failed to meet AYP in 2002, the district stepped up its efforts to improve the programs in these schools, in keeping with NCLB requirements. District staff met with principals, aand provided resources, curriculum specialists developed improved instructional programs, and faculties developed action plans for individual students. The superintendent also hired an analyst to identify promising practices in successful schools that could be shared across the district. Only two schools failed to make AYP the following year.

The district also actively helped schools in need of improvement communicate with parents about NCLB and the choice options. A newsletter template in English and Spanish was provided to staff at all the schools, who then customized it with their own content. This newsletter explained the school's status, improvement efforts, and parents' option to transfer their child to a school that was already making AYP.

Achievement data are regularly used to guide the district planning and the creation of school programs. Principals receive a "data book" and meet with research and evaluation staff during the summer to review their data. With NCLB, the district is conducting additionalnal analyses to determine which students are achieving, and also sharing data more fully with teachers and helping them understand how to use the data to guide instruction.

Parents are recognized as an important resource. At each school they are encouraged to become ambassadors to other parents and to act as advisers to the district. For example, Mesa's universal homework standards are the result of parent activism.

Regular parent and student surveys make the parent feedback a formal, quantitative element of the data book used to guide planning. During the spring of each year, the district sends a survey home with every student and collects survey information from selected fifth-graders and secondary school students. Five-year trend data on these measures show both areas of progress and areas for improvement.

According to these critical audiences, Mesa schools are on the right track. Since 1999, parent and student satisfaction with Mesa elementary schools has increased steadily, to a composite of 93 percent. Parents feel welcome and believe their children are respected and challenged. Students feel proud of their school, feel they are getting a good education, and believe that their teachers and principal care about them.

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Last Modified: 11/30/2009