Signing up your child for school is about more than automatically going to your neighborhood campus and turning in immunization records these days. Parents can consider all kinds of options to fit their children's needs, from different types of public schools to private education, from varieties of hands-on learning environments to specialized classroom programs.
And you don't have to drive far to find these different types of schools - many options exist right here in Ahwatukee Foothills, and it seems like offerings are always expanding.
For instance, the Kyrene School District has specialized programs including a new leadership academy at Kyrene de los Cerritos Elementary, a new self-contained gifted program at Kyrene Monte Vista Elementary and a service for home-schooled students to come in for arts, science, technology or physical education enrichment at Kyrene de la Colina Elementary. Desert Garden Montessori is expanding its program to serve seventh- and eighth-grade students this year, and the new Inspire Kids Montessori started offering preschool programs this summer. Charter school Ahwatukee Foothills Prep is opening a new high school program this fall.
Those are just a few of the options west of Interstate 10, and the options are growing.
"In my experience here, the variety is increasing. There seems to be more choice. Which is a good thing. Parents and students are choosing our school because they feel it meets their needs," said Howard Brown, principal at Ahwatukee Foothills Prep. "It's an important decision to make."
While some unique programs have existed for quite awhile, Kyrene Assistant Superintendent for Instructional Services Gina Taylor said there has been a more concerted effort to come up with new offerings in the past few years.
One big driver is integrating new technology into the classroom, technology that has made a much wider range of information more accessible to students than it was 10 or 20 years ago, Taylor said.
More schools have also opened in the area. And while Taylor said additional schools in the area aren't the main driver behind coming up with new programs, she acknowledged one reason for new programs was to help Kyrene schools be the choice parents pick.
"We know that students have unique needs, and we know that parents have different preferences for their children," Taylor said. "We want to make sure we have programs that match students' needs and the needs of the community."
Shetal Walters, owner and director of Desert Garden Montessori, said she's noticed parents becoming more aware of the different options they have in Arizona in the past few years. While she advocates Montessori learning for every child - a style that embraces hands-on, applied lessons that integrate several subjects into different projects - she encouraged parents to really delve into their educational options.
"My wish would be that parents do a really, really thorough job of investigating what's really behind the doors. Not through the sales pitch and the marketing," Walters said. "It's one of the most important relationships you'll have, outside of your own family."
She recommended looking for parent referrals, check out conversations about the school on blogs, asking about the school's values and observing a few classes.
Brown encouraged parents to ask about the curriculum a school offers, teacher quality, class sizes and how a child's needs are met.
That last part can mean a variety of things. For instance, Ahwatukee Foothills Preparatory sets up achievement plans for individual students. Brown also recommended asking what types of interventions are available, whether a child is struggling or needs a greater challenge in the classroom.
"There are choices out there," Brown said. "Every choice out there just encourages parents to come in and see what's available."
What's in a school office?
Aside from differences in the classroom, Arizona has several options for the way schools are run. Those boil down to three types: District, charter and private.
What it is: Public, taxpayer-funded education open to any student living in the school's borders or to students who open enroll, space allowing. A central district office runs several schools in a geographic area.
Examples in Ahwatukee: Kyrene elementary and middle schools, Desert Vista High School, Mountain Pointe High School
What they Say: Kyrene Assistant Superintendent Gina Taylor said public schools are required to have highly-qualified teachers, which isn't always true of other options. They are established schools and, since districts are large, can usually offer a wide variety of programs because they have the advantage of economies of scale.
What it is: Public, taxpayer-funded education that is run by a private group, company or individual. These programs are not tuition based. Anyone can apply for enrollment, but space is usually limited.
Examples in Ahwatukee: Ahwatukee Foothills Prep, Horizon Community Learning Center, Keystone Montessori Charter School, Ambassador Academy, Sonoran Science Academy - Ahwatukee
What they Say: Ahwatukee Foothills Preparatory Principal Howard Brown touted local control as one huge advantage to a charter school. Since it's basically its own district, it can fund activities and items important to the community. Class sizes are small in many cases, and a lot of charters offer specialized programs.
What it is: Schools run by a private entity or individual. Students must apply for enrollment. Programs are usually tuition-based, although scholarship and tax credit options are available in Arizona to help cover costs.
Examples in Ahwatukee: Desert Garden Montessori, St. John Bosco Catholic School, Summit School of Ahwatukee
What they Say: Desert Garden Montessori owner Shetal Walters said parents have a huge voice at her school. Plus, since there's less bureaucracy governing the school than some other options, changes can happen more quickly. Different scholarship options have allowed for diverse student populations, too.