The city's school-choice programs peaked this past year, with about 98 percent of rising high school students choosing their schools, and 98 percent of a priority group of fifth-graders participating in the process. Prestigious schools such as Polytechnic Institute, City College and Digital Harbor remained the most popular for high school students.
But charter and transformation schools were the most popular among parents of middle-school students — they had the highest number of applications, and the highest number of families designating them as their first, second and third choices.
Admission into Baltimore's public charter schools is based on applications, and lotteries are used only if there are more applications than seats. Some schools also have minimum entrance requirements — based on composite scores that factor in state assessments and attendance. Specialty programs can also require auditions and interviews.
Paylor's daughter applied and was accepted into the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women.
"Now parents, if they do their homework, can find an option," Paylor said. "We did, and now I know she will be prepared for high school and college. It all really fell into place for us."
Admission at the Mount Vernon girls school — which serves students from Park Heights to Park Avenue — is based on a lottery. About 78 percent of students receive free and reduced-priced lunch. The school's attendance rate and test scores have ranked in the high 80th and 90th percentiles since it opened 2009.
The school, which offers a focused college-preparatory curriculum, has 231 applications filed for the 2011-2012 school year — three times the number of open seats.
But the stakes for emerging charters and transformation schools are higher under Baltimore's "Fair Student Funding" model, a per-pupil formula started by Alonso that ties a school's budget to its enrollment.
Last month, the operator of NACA Freedom and Democracy II, a public charter school that opened in North Baltimore in 2009, told Alonso and the school board that the competition created by the school-choice program was costing the school funding and strong students.
Cecil Gray, also the co-chair of the Coalition of Baltimore Charter Schools, said that after struggling with enrollment in its first year, NACA II had enough students for 2010 to put it at full capacity, with a waiting list.
However, Gray said that throughout the summer, students dropped off his rolls because schools were still actively recruiting, and the district allowed parents to opt out of their initial choices after the deadline. The last-minute enrollment changes left the school with a $151,000 deficit and its leaders scrambling to adjust resources for students who remained.
"It's not fair," Gray told the board. "We're an emerging school. With your support, with your help, NACA II will blossom and flourish as well. Without your support, NACA II is being truncated … not being allowed to sprout its wings."
Gray was accompanied by state Sen. Joan Carter Conway, who represents NACA II's district and is the chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environment Affairs Committee. She also asked that the board consider policy changes to help schools better plan for their students and maintain the integrity of the process.
"If I'm the principal of a school, I would want my school to be full because I need my total budget capacity," Conway said.
But choice and competition make even the strongest schools work to keep students and parents satisfied, said Lorna Hanley, principal of the Leadership School for Young Women.
"There are schools that are creating an environment and culture, and have high expectations for all kids," she said. "So, you have to step up if you want to stay in the game. It's about making your school the best it can be so that they don't want to leave."
She added, "At the end of the day, everyone's working harder for our children, so they win."