It's showcase season for school districts that want to keep parents happy—and students in school and motivated—by offering an array of program choices.
Nowhere was that more evident than in the record turnout of 12,000 at the South Florida Fairgrounds on Oct. 16, where families had the opportunity to essentially "shop" for special public school programs offered by the School District of Palm Beach County, which is the 11th largest in the continental U.S. with 176,724 K-12 students.
Peter Licata, assistant superintendent of the county's Division of Choice Options, said it was the 16th year of the showcase—and he expects to break the record again next year.
"Attendance has grown steadily, because our programs are nationally recognized," said Licata, a former principal who has been in this role for the past three years. Even the ranks of exhibitors have grown. "Colleges showed up. Businesses showed up," he said.
Demonstrating their offerings were 130 Palm Beach County schools with choice programs, and 20 charter schools, also in the county. Alongside them were representatives of organizations like Gulfstream, FPL, Costco, MD Now, and Boca Raton Regional Hospital. The school district even used the occasion as an opportunity to collect non-perishable food items for needy families.
More than 20,000 applications are submitted each year for 10,000 choice seats in Palm Beach County. But more than half the families are likely to be disappointed that they didn't get their first choice. Skewing the number are the parents who seek placement for their students in Suncoast High School and Don Estridge High Tech Middle School, which are highly ranked and much sought after. Many more students are turned away than there are opportunities to enter those schools.
"Parents expectations are: If you're putting a program out there and it's running well, and it's something my child can benefit from, I want them to look into it. Each booth has a staff member, the principal, and the parents drill them. 'What's my child going to get out of this?' We live in sort of a demanding area," he said.
The appearance of the booth is of major importance, too, like it would be at any professional trade show. "We are a culture of what we see is what we think it is," Licata said. "Sitting at the exhibit hall, you're looking at huge banners. They want to attract students. Our school district is very competitive. We don't lose students we are supposed to get."
"We pride ourselves in being a national leader in choice programs; we have 240 of them; in-house and out-of-boundary. Twenty of 24 high schools have culinary academies. That's what every kid wants. They see the chefs in Boca Raton are making $150,000 to $200,000, and they see that as a glamor job," said Licata.
Palm Beach parents have until Dec. 14 to make an application. The lottery will be held in March. Licata plans to vacation out of the country for the week that takes place, he says.