Public, private, magnet, charter, career institutes, homeschool — parents have a variety of options when it comes to educating their children.
In December, the Hamilton County Board of Education added more options to families' choices and the district launched a marketing campaign, informing parents of the opportunities such as performing arts magnet schools, STEM or industry-focused institutes and more, called "My Future Schools."
Here are four things to know about school choices in Hamilton County.
1. Hamilton County schools do not have full open enrollment — yet.
Open enrollment refers to allowing students from anywhere in the school district to attend any school they want. Some school districts set parameters or criteria, but many use lotteries and fill schools until they reach capacity.
Hamilton County still separates the district into zones and students are required to attend the schools zoned for their home addresses unless they attend an alternative option.
But Superintendent Bryan Johnson and district leaders have been pushing to expand open enrollment within public schools.
Earlier this month, the school board voted to approve open enrollment at seven schools.
At the school board's November work session, Johnson noted: "We are almost, we are about halfway, there to being a choice district" in regards to open enrollment.
2. There are myriad options for parents.
Private schools, public schools, and homeschooling are all common options for parents in Hamilton County. Across the state, 70,000 students attended private schools or were homeschooled in 2015-16, compared to 998,000 public school students, according to the Tennessee Department of Education.
With lauded local private schools that have been pillars of the community, many of Hamilton County's wealthiest send their children to the likes of Baylor School, Girls Preparatory School, McCallie School and an assortment of other options, including the Wauhatchie Forest School and Skyuka Hall. Four charter schools, publicly funded but privately managed schools like Chattanooga Preparatory School and Ivy Academy are also available options.
Under Johnson's leadership, public schools have begun to offer more robust options for students and families, including 15 magnet schools (some of which have been established for decades); 19 Future Ready Institutes, which are smaller learning academies centered around industry themes embedded in traditional high schools; career academies and early college options; and seven fully open-enrollment schools starting with the 2019-20 school year.
3. Options are controversial.
In addition to the political debates around private school vouchers, which allow families to use public dollars to send their children to private schools, there are other speed bumps in the road.
Some school board members, including District 1's Rhonda Thurman, have said magnet schools favor wealthy students and children of school leaders. Though district leaders emphasize the use of a lottery for an equitable application process for magnet schools, only about 11 percent of Chattanooga School for Arts and Sciences students are economically disadvantaged, compared to 37 percent districtwide.
UnifiEd's controversial APEX (Action Plan for Educational Excellence) report called for transfer policies with provided transportation as a way to alleviate segregation in the county's schools.
"School districts can implement open transfer policies so students are able to attend any school in the district. These transfer policies must be supported with adequate transportation and require constant monitoring to ensure equity through demographic goals," the report recommended.
In May, Thurman and District 3's Joe Smith set off a firestorm over equity in the district when they spoke out against the APEX report. The pair have also historically advocated against providing busing to students not attending their zoned schools.
4. Deadlines are nearing.
As parents consider where they want to send their child to school next August, the district is pushing choices this spring. In the coming weeks, school fairs and open houses are planned for a variety of magnet and open-enrollment schools.
"Choosing a child's school is one of the most important life decisions for a parent," Johnson said in a statement. "Whether a student has dreams of being a dancer on Broadway, an engineer designing alternative energy transportation of the future, or learning the skills needed for an exciting career in medicine, Hamilton County Schools provides opportunities and options to open doors to the vast possibilities available for your child to find success."
Applications for magnet schools are open, but close on Jan. 31. Applications for Future Ready Institutes, Early College and Open Enrollment Schools will open on Feb. 1.
On Jan. 14, the district will hold a magnet school fair, and on Feb. 19, it will hold a fair featuring the other options in the district.
For more information on school options, event dates and details and to apply, visit: www.hcde.org/newsroom/my_future_schools.
Contact staff writer Meghan Mangrum at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.