Katy Sinksen's third grade class at Eugene Field A+ Elementary School in Sioux Falls, divides into three groups. One group reads a book with a partner and writes a poem. Another group hides spelling words inside a picture they color. A third group composes a song about the importance of reading.
Eugene Field is a specialty school with a focus on a team-teaching philosophy and the arts. Like many schools in large urban districts, the staff at Eugene Field hopes to use their specialized curriculum to draw students to the older neighborhood and school.
These specialty schools are a hybrid of sorts. They use some of the magnet school philosophy - schools designed to attract white suburban students toward the inner city urban schools. Sioux Falls' specialty schools are also a little like charter schools, giving students and families a new set of choices.
Minnesota was the first state to offer charter schools. There are also vouchers and tax credits that are used as tools to move kids out of neighborhood schools into less populated areas. Ultimately the goal is to give parents more choices in how their children learn.
But Sioux Falls is offering educational choices, for a different reason. While the city grows, there's a South Dakota state law that prohibits the school district from expanding outside its current boundaries. District officials see specialty schools like Eugene Fields as a way to compete for students.
Eugene Field Elementary is called an A+ school because of its teaching philosophy; teachers focus on how kids learn best. Some kids learn better through music or dance, others learn using science or math concepts.
Laura Fjellestad, Eugene Field's music and drama teacher, brings some of the lessons from other classes into her planning; for example, incorporating math in her music lesson. She'll have students write a song using math facts.
"They needed to create a song that had four beats per measure and they needed to create a 16 measure song," says Fjellestad. "They had to figure out how many beats they're going to have total and divide by four."
Eugene Field Elementary has about 250 students. It was built in 1952 in what is an older neighborhood now. Half the students live within walking distance while the other half are bussed from an expanding neighborhood nearby.
Principal Kathy Coulter says a new school building opening in the fall will draw away most of their bussed students, but she hopes the specialty focus on the arts will convince new students to enroll. Coulter says there is a benefit to being a small school.
"I know every child by name as do the other staff members. So what happens is the smallness becomes a huge strength for us," says Coulter. "I think people should have choice. Because whenever you have a choice in where you're going to school, you'll probably be more committed to that particular school."
So far Sioux Falls has five of these specialized schools, they plan to open two more soon. One will focus on math, science and technology. That program will be in another of the older schools. In two years, another specialty school will open with a focus on global studies.
Mike Petrilli, Vice President for National Programs and Policy at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an organization that studies education trends, says 40 percent of the students in the United States do not attend their neighborhood school. He says it's about time education caught up with the need for choice in education.
"It's very hard for a school to be all things to all people. Traditionally school districts try to compromise and offer a little bit of everything," says Petrilli. "A different way to go though is to have these specialized schools and say, 'Look, we're going to make schools different from one another.' They're going to appeal to different kinds of students and every parent then has some options and hopefully will find a school that they like."
Petrilli says Sioux Falls may be charting some new territory in the familiar school choice trend. They've created hybrid specialty programs that let schools compete with each other for students.