In the chilly morning air at Phoebe Hearst Elementary School in East Sacramento, a few dozen parents listened intently, some with worried faces, about a process that can make or break their children’s acceptance to the campus next fall.
“Andrew is a good kid,” Robert Mendoza said Wednesday of his 4-year-old son, who will be a candidate for a kindergarten spot at the campus coveted for its academic reputation. “Everything they are talking about he already knows.” Still, Mendoza said as his wife Maria looked on, “it has been a little nerve-racking.”
Each January, parents seeking an academic program beyond their neighborhood school go through the annual ritual known as open enrollment.
The process is intense at Sacramento City and San Juan unified school districts, where the gaps in academic performance are wider from campus to campus than in newer suburbs. More parents in the two large districts look at programs other than their neighborhood school in search of a more rigorous classroom environment or different academic philosophy.
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Kindergarten is the sweet spot for getting a child in the door, since students typically remain in their chosen schools as long as possible. And the volume of applications is rising, up 60 percent in the last five years in Sacramento City Unified schools and remaining at high levels during that time in San Juan Unified, the districts’ data show. They are two of the area’s three largest districts; the region’s biggest, Elk Grove Unified, does not offer open enrollment for kindergarten.
Phoebe Hearst Principal Nathan McGill said at least 200 students are expected to apply to the school this winter for about 90 kindergarten seats available for the 2015-16 school year. It is the only school in the district in which students are screened by a teacher for their kindergarten readiness.
An estimated 125 of those applicants will meet Phoebe Hearst’s standards, and the school won’t have room for about 35 of those. After giving priority to students with older siblings at the school, Phoebe Hearst will fill its classes by lottery and place the remaining applicants on a waiting list.
The school, not far from California State University, Sacramento, operates at the high end of the state’s Academic Performance Index. Students last year scored 941 out of a possible 1,000. In 2012-13, 22 percent of Phoebe Hearst students qualified for free or reduced-price lunch, well below the district’s 68 percent average.
Parents are highly involved, and the school tracks the number of hours each family volunteers.
In one month last fall, the Parent Teacher Organization raised more than $40,000 in a jogathon to pay for a part-time art teacher, McGill said after giving a parent tour this week.
Tana Toll, holding 18-month-old daughter Ariel, said she’s hoping her 4-year-old, Alison, will win a seat through the enrollment lottery. Alison should do well in the kindergarten screening, Toll said.
“She has been in preschool since 2,” she said. “I think my daughter does better when she is challenged.”
If Alison doesn’t get in, she added, “we are strongly considering private school. It would be a tossup between Merryhill and Sacramento Country Day.”
Phoebe Hearst is not a “neighborhood school,” so even though the Toll family lives nearby, students attend through open enrollment, regardless of residency.
Other no-boundary campuses also are in high demand: Leonardo da Vinci in the Hollywood Park neighborhood and the Waldorf-inspired Alice Birney in South Land Park.
District spokesman Gabe Ross said open enrollment slots are most plentiful for entry-level grades: the first year of elementary, middle or high school.
“I think we put a focus on making sure that all of our parents, everyone in the district, knows about the programs at their disposal and their options,” he said.
Ross said open enrollment also helps counter a district trend of declining enrollment by attracting students to in-demand campuses.
“There are a variety of reasons why our enrollment is dropping, many of them beyond our control,” he said. “We know there are more parents who are choosing charters or driving their kids to Mira Loma or West Sacramento or wherever. If we can give more choices, it opens the door for us to keep more kids in Sac City.”
In San Juan, the open enrollment process was streamlined in 2009, giving parents more options to apply online or in person, said spokeswoman Kim Minugh. The district created a central enrollment office where all families could learn about their open enrollment options and allowed them to apply online. That contributed to a big bump in open enrollment starting in 2010.
“The idea was to really create a culture where all families have the same opportunities,” Minugh said.
John Garrard, director of admissions and family services at San Juan, cited a long list of San Juan possibilities through open enrollment. Mira Loma High School, for example, is popular for its elite International Baccalaureate curriculum and has added space to accommodate growth.
Space was added for two other IB programs, Winston Churchill Middle School, a neighborhood campus known for its science program, and Thomas Kelly Elementary School, which performs above state and district averages in advancing its English learners.
At Mesa Verde High School, the business academy is a draw, Garrard said. Mission Avenue and Orangevale Open, two no-boundary schools, attract applicants with an educational philosophy driven by hands-on learning.
Call The Bee’s Loretta Kalb, (916) 321-1073. Follow her on Twitter @LorettaSacBee.
Open enrollment periods
San Juan Unified: Now through 5 p.m. Jan. 16.
Sacramento City Unified: Jan. 20 to 5 p.m. Feb. 3. (middle and high schools)
Feb. 17 to March 3 (elementary schools)