In the second year of a crusade to woo back students who have flocked to charter schools, officials in the Chester Upland School District have upped the ante with free laptops and headphones.
The Chromebook laptop and hugely popular Dr. Dre Beats headphones - which retail for hundreds of dollars - were on the table this summer for students willing to abandon rivals such as Chester Community Charter School and return to Chester Upland classrooms or its new cyberschool.
"We realize we're in a competitive environment," said Joe Watkins, the state-appointed receiver tasked with developing a recovery plan for the cash-strapped Delaware County district.
The giveaways are the latest salvo in the battle between the struggling school system and its charters, which educate almost two-thirds of Chester Upland students.
Watkins said the primary goal of the freebies was to promote the district's new online school, which has enrolled about 95 students so far. But - honoring a flier that went out this summer to parents across the district - the laptops and trendy headphones have also been promised to anyone who returns to Chester Upland from local charters, where enrollment has soared over the last decade.
One of the district's main competitors doesn't think the plan will work.
"It's not a numbers game that the district can move very much in their direction," said Donald Delson, president of the board of trustees of the Chester Charter School for the Arts.
Paula Silver, chair of the Widener Partnership Charter School board of trustees, said: "We don't give incentives."
The Philadelphia School District, in the same boat as Chester Upland with 63,000 students in 86 charters, has no such incentives to lure back pupils, a spokeswoman said.
Chester Upland officials say they won't know the full cost of the incentives until next month. But they insisted the thousands spent should save millions the district now pays to educate local children in charters, especially more than 600 who attended cybercharters last year.
"The cost of our cybercharter schools was $8.5 million last year," Watkins said. "Obviously, if we can save on that number, we can come close to balancing our deficit."
That yearly spending gap was running $24 million at the height of Chester Upland's financial woes two years ago, but Watkins said it had been reduced to roughly $12 million.
Overall, Watkins and district Superintendent Gregory Shannon, who has made aggressive, even door-to-door recruitment a focal point of his administration since his arrival last year, say preliminary numbers show an increase to 3,454 students for 2014-15. That represents more than an 18 percent spike, from 2,917 at the end of June.
The high-tech goodies are just one front in a growing war for students in the district, which was placed under state control two years ago after a series of low school rankings, a growing budget deficit, and a flood of students leaving for charter schools.
Bettie McLairen, the Chester Upland school board president, said charters had had "carte blanche with recruiting our students for years." She and others say Chester Community Charter offered incentives during its enrollment climb, such as free turkeys at Thanksgiving and a trip to Disney World for one lucky family at the end of last year.
Once again this summer, Shannon and school staffers knocked on doors with a sales pitch that included a claim that reading scores were up and violent incidents that once marred classroom learning at the high school had dropped substantially.
"We are confident we are building a better product," the superintendent said.
With little fanfare, Chester Upland also hired consultants to prepare a report that analyzed the three main charters: Chester Community, Chester Charter School for the Arts, and Widener Partnership. Its main criticism was that the schools were short on African American and Latino teachers and staff who could serve as role models for their students, who are primarily black or Hispanic.
The consultants also said they found little evidence of classroom materials hailing the achievements of prominent blacks or Latinos outside of sports or entertainment.
A statement from David E. Clark, CEO of Chester Community Charter, said the school was working to increase diversity among its staff.
Initially, district officials intended to keep the 14-page report under wraps but released it under pressure from community activist Will Richan. He worked with a public-interest attorney who filed legal papers that caused the district to make the report public.
Watkins said he believed the report could be a tool for better cooperation between Chester-Upland and its charters.
"I think it was a good start in telling us where we are right now and in helping us figure out how we can be helpful to the schools," Watkins said. "This is just the beginning."
Indeed, the report suggested joint professional development, fund-raising, and other services at the public and charter schools, which it called a novel approach.