As the new school year gets under way today, not all Hillsborough County students will heading to their neighborhood school.
Instead, 12,350 students will opt to attend one of the county's 43 charter schools. That's up from about 10,000 students last year.
Charter schools are independent public schools operated by an organization that hires its own teachers, designs its own academic program and control its own finances.
Although charter schools are not managed by the school district, they must be approved by the school district, must provide a curriculum that meets the Sunshine State Standards, must hire certified teachers and are accountable to the school district in which they reside for student academic performance and fiscal management.
So why choose a charter school?
It's an individual choice, said Jenna Hodgens, the Hillsborough County School District's supervisor of charter schools.
Many charter schools offer a specialized academic emphasis that public schools don't offer. However, the main draw of charter schools is their personalized learning programs that have proven a successful alternative for students who have difficulty achieving in a traditional school environment.
"There are a variety of reasons parents might choose to send their children to a charter school," said Hodgens.
She said the rise in the popularity of the charter school option is evidenced in the number of new charter schools that have sprung up in Hillsborough County. This year the school district will welcome seven new charter schools.
"I think we have very successful charter schools that are working well with students and requiring high academic standards," said Hodgens.
Six of the county's charter schools are located in the Bloomingdale-Riverview area including the Phase II of the Winthrop Charter School, 6306 Scholars Ln., Riverview, in Winthrop Town Centre.
The new 25,822-square-foot, two-story building, neighbors the Winthrop Charter School for grades kindergarten through sixth opened last year.
Phase II will serve 450 students in grades six through eight.
Operated by Charter Schools USA, one of the largest providers of charter school management services in the nation, the Winthrop schools focus on personalized learning plans to meet the individual needs of the student.
Kid's Community College offers three charter schools for students, including the newly completed 49,000-square-foot facility at 10030 Mathog Rd., Riverview.
The new school combines both an elementary (kindergarten to fifth grade) and a middle school (sixth to eighth grade) and can accommodate up to 636 students.
Like the Winthrop Charter Schools, Kid's Community College offers a curriculum that focuses on the individual student's specific learning style.
At the same time, Kid's Community College will open the area's first International Baccalaureate program for elementary students at 6528 U.S. 301 S., Riverview, in a building that previously accommodated Kid's Community College's middle school.
The program will open this week with 108 students.
Kid's Community College is in the process of building a new 30,000-square-foot facility on Balm-Riverview Road to house the IB program. It is expected to be completed in January.
PIVOT Charter School, which opened last year at 3020 Falkenburg Rd., Riverview, also touts its program of individualized instruction that allows students to learn at their own pace, including accelerated learners who don't find public school challenging enough.
The school for students in grades six to 12
PIVOT Charter School Tampa is a tuition-free public school serving students in grades six to 12.
Valrico Lake Advantage Academy, at 13306 Boyette Rd., Riverview, serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade.
The charter school originally was located at 1653 Bloomingdale Ave., Valrico, and moved to its new facility on Boyette Road last year.
The school is geared to students who have a special interest in science and math.
To learn more about all of the county's charter school options, visit the school district's website.