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SALT LAKE CITY — Student enrollment in Utah charter schools grew 11 percent since last fall, and those schools are accounting for a greater portion of the state's student population, according to a report released Friday by the Utah State Office of Education.
The growth is largely due to more parents who find the variety of charter school education programs appealing, according to Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools.
"Utah parents are looking for more choices," Van Tassell said. "We're just thrilled to see so many parents having an option to find what fits best for their children."
The report, based on a census of student enrollment on Oct. 1, revealed that Utah's student population rose by 1.5 percent — 9,602 additional students from last fall. Growth in district schools, however, only accounts for about one-third of those new students.
The report identified the Alpine School District as the largest in the state, with 73,570 students. The Daggett School District is the smallest, with 174 students.
The explosive growth in the number of charter schools has been just wonderful. If you look back over the past decade, I think charter schools have absorbed half of the growth in the number of students in Utah public schools. And there are literally thousands more on the waiting list hoping to (make) that same choice.
–Royce Van Tassell, executive director of the Utah Association of Public Charter Schools
About 10 years ago, the number of charter schools in the state was still in the single digits. Now there are 109 charter schools in operation, with another dozen or so expected to open over the next two years, Van Tassell said.
"The explosive growth in the number of charter schools has been just wonderful. If you look back over the past decade, I think charter schools have absorbed half of the growth in the number of students in Utah public schools," he said. "And there are literally thousands more on the waiting list hoping to (make) that same choice."
Charter schools are public schools that often focus on specific areas of learning catered to certain audiences. Spectrum Academy, for example, specializes in education for kids with autism. American Preparatory Academy provides special services for students learning English as a second language. Montessori schools seek to teach students through environmental immersion. And the list goes on.
"They all offer something unique and different, and obviously parents are very thrilled with that," Van Tassell said.
Jessica Clawson is one of them. For her, the choice to switch her children to a charter school came when her son was in a kindergarten class where the majority of his classmates didn't speak English, and initial strides in learning became difficult for him.
"He really struggled in that classroom as a kindergartener," Clawson said.
She enrolled several of her children in Endeavor Hall, a West Valley charter school that focuses on writing and classical education. The switch has been beneficial for more than just her son, Clawson said.
"I have a daughter that has dyslexia, and knowing that she would get lots of intensive work on writing and reading and decoding was a reason that I kept her at Endeavor Hall as long as I did because I knew that was more than what she would get following a scripted program that's handed to the public school system," she said.
Growing demand in tailored education is mirrored by changes in school-age populations.
Racial and ethnic minorities now comprise 24 percent of Utah's students, amounting to more than 150,000 individuals in kindergarten through 12th grade, according to the report. Minorities have tipped the scale at Ogden, Salt Lake and San Juan school districts, becoming the majority.
Migration of all races to Utah, however, has largely declined in the past five years due to national economic downturn. Before then, young adults accounted for a large portion of immigrants to the state, and their children are now moving through school, according to Pam Perlich, a senior research economist at the University of Utah's Bureau of Economic and Business Research.
That explains why this year's increase of 9,602 students is the lowest the state has seen in 10 years, Perlich said.
"This is not unexpected," she said. "We had the big migration boom to the state from the mid-1990s, and it kind of tapered off until the bust in 2008. And five years later, those kids show up in school. … As births begin to fall, then of course we have declining rates of increase in school-age population."
While Utah's increasing diversity strengthens the demand for tailored education, like what charter schools offer, it may also change the way today's students associate with other cultures they encounter in school, according to Perlich.
"The kids growing up now, their sensibilities, their ideas about diversity, their ideas about all kinds of things are really quite different than their parents," she said. "So many changes going on."