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Would you like biggie fries with that geometry assignment?

• Mike Thomas

Customer service, once the domain of corporate America, is coming to public schools in Florida. They are rolling out the welcome mat and increasing their menu offerings to ensure their customers – primarily parents — are satisfied.

This will be a growing national trend as school districts often find themselves competing for an ever shrinking number of students. Enrollment has been declining for the past five years in half of the nation’s largest school districts.

Even Florida is feeling the impact as its once rapid population growth has slowed from the Great Recession.

When school districts were scrambling to find enough space for students, charters were not an issue. There were plenty of kids to go around. But losing them in a period of slow growth, or even enrollment declines, is another matter.

School districts that couldn’t build classrooms fast enough prior to 2007 now find themselves sitting on a growing inventory of under-utilized infrastructure that must be maintained.

And so Orange and Seminole counties are taking action to stem their losses.

The Orlando Sentinel reports that Orange has given a handbook to employees outlining expectations, such as returning voice mail within 48 hours. And when a parent walks in the front office, the receptionist had better respond with the same attentiveness one might expect at a local dining establishment.

“The push to be more customer-friendly comes as the school district faces increasing choice options and competition from charter, virtual and private schools,’’ the paper reported. “Even within the district, many students have transfer option or can leave their zoned school for a magnet program.’’

Traditionally under-served schools in low-income areas are promoting academically rigorous curriculum, such as AP classes, International Baccalaureate programs and AVID. Principals are reaching out into communities to keep high-performing students in the neighborhood schools.

Next door, in Seminole County, the Sentinel reports high school hours are offering more flexible hours and more virtual classes. Gifted elementary kids can take more advanced online courses.

“We have never had to compete before,” Superintendent Walt Griffin told the Sentinel. “People who home-school or send their children to private or charter schools might not know what we have to offer.”

Seminole is down about 3,500 students from its 2006 enrollment. All but a handful of schools are under-capacity, which is forcing politically unpopular decisions to shut some down. The district is seeking a property tax increase this year.

Between 2005 and 2010, Broward County, home to Fort Lauderdale, saw enrollment decline by 15,000 students. Charter schools, meanwhile, serve about 25,000 students, costing the district millions of dollars in FTE funding. Broward now is enlisting parents to promote their schools.

Charters serve about 40,000 students in Miami-Dade, which has responded with additional magnet schools, special programs, a downtown virtual school and more K-8 schools, which are popular with parents.

Schools will have to become more efficient, more adaptive, more responsive and more successful with students. And as they do, the charters will have to respond in kind.

When schools compete, students win.

About the author

Mike Thomas @MikeThomasTweet

Mike Thomas serves in the communications department, writing editorials and speeches. Prior to joining the Foundation, Mike worked for more than 30 years as a journalist with Florida Today and the Orlando Sentinel. He has written investigative projects, magazine feature stories, humor pieces, editorials and local columns. He won several state and national awards, and was named a finalist in the American Society of New Editors’ Distinguished Writing Award for Commentary/Column Writing in 2010. As a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, he wrote extensively about education reform, becoming one of its chief advocates in the Florida media. Mike graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in political science and journalism. His wife is a teacher and he has two children in public schools. Contact Mike at