Despite early resistance, some public schools in Stanislaus County are adapting to become more like their competitors running charter schools.
That competition represents a race to deliver education in new ways, and to hold on to as many students — and their accompanying state funding — as possible.
After Empire Union School District officials closed Teel Middle School last year to cut costs, Aspire College Preparatory School moved in to rent part of the campus.
Since Aspire opened shop, Empire Elementary School Principal Chris Schoeneman said he's learned from the group.
"I think we're all competing for students. Charter schools are doing a better job at it — they're focused on it. Regular public education doesn't understand it," he said.
Schoeneman said traditional public schools need to do a better job of advertising their special programs. For instance, Empire Elementary is sustaining a sizable music program despite tough budget choices that are compelling other schools to slash electives.
On the other hand are districts like Modesto City Schools that plan to open charter schools on their own terms.
Trustees and administrators in late 2008 rejected Aspire's proposal to open at a site in a low-income neighborhood in south Modesto. The district's teachers union opposed the charter, too, concerned that teachers would lose jobs if students from the district chose to leave and attend Aspire College Prep.
Now, Modesto City Schools is looking into starting a dual-language charter and an independent study charter — both of which would be run by the district.
Ceres Unified School District officials felt the same way about charters when approached by Aspire a decade ago. They since have changed their tune.
Once a foe of charters, Ceres Assistant Superintendent Jay Simmonds welcomes the competition.
"I saw (charters) as a threat. I felt (parents) could not do as good a job as a regular classroom teacher. I saw a lot of fly-by-night (charter schools)," Simmonds said.
Then he visited the Hickman Charter School's program. "I saw parents doing as good a job or better than teachers."
When parents left Ceres schools for charters, Simmonds said, he blamed the charters before realizing the district's schools needed to evolve.
District officials decided to try their own charter school, opening Whitmore Charter School in 2002. They chose technology to offer a niche program for families, Simmonds said.
Officials also changed the district's overall culture, from being teacher-driven to student-driven, Simmonds said. Principal evaluations now are tied to how family friendly schools are, and all sites have after-school programs until 6 p.m. each day.
Some educators say that's the future of public education — partnerships and cooperation between charters and traditional public schools.
"Some school districts act like the water company. They think, 'You need us, you have to come to us,' " Simmonds said. "Bottom line is, if you're in my school and you love your school, you're not going anywhere."