The biggest trends in Charlotte-area education can be summed up in three words: Choice, connections and change.
Mecklenburg County has long boasted an array of public, private, charter and home schools.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, a countywide district with roughly 145,000 students, serves about 80 percent of the county’s school-age population. But the state recently cleared the way for a charter boom, with new public schools run by independent boards opening around the region.
Some charters offer specialized academic themes, such as math and science or international studies. Others target specific types of students, from the most gifted to the most at-risk. Charters charge no tuition, hold admission lotteries and aren’t limited by county lines. Unlike other public schools, they don’t have to offer busing or lunches.
The N.C. legislature has also approved a voucher system to help students with disabilities and those from low-income and working-class families attend private schools.
CMS (that’s how locals shorten the cumbersome name for the district) has responded to the competition by beefing up its menu of choices. The district is adding magnets, expanding career-focused programs and inviting all schools to design unique offerings to appeal to their communities.
That’s where connections come in. You’ll find K-12 schools working with universities, community colleges and employers to craft options that prepare graduates for success in college or the work force. CMS has two small high schools located on campuses of Central Piedmont Community College, while Johnson C. Smith University is preparing to partner with Kennedy Charter School.
Many schools offer internships and career-focused classes with support from nearby business partners. European-style apprenticeships, where students can earn while they learn and graduate into skilled trades, are an emerging trend, driven by German companies in Charlotte.
Philanthropists and foundations also connect with public schools. Project LIFT, a $55 million, five-year effort by local donors to boost performance in nine west Charlotte schools, has drawn national attention. Several national foundations are working with CMS to study such issues as recruitment, training and retention of top teachers and principals.
The “change” part may seem obvious, but there’s even more. Schools across the region are figuring out how to use technology to reshape learning. In Mooresville, for instance, all students get take-home laptops, while many CMS schools invite students to bring their own digital devices.
Like counterparts across the country, local schools are phasing in national Common Core academic standards. And in 2013, the state revamped the exams that have long been used to rate school performance. In the short term, that introduces another C-word – confusion – as educators, policymakers and parents try to make sense of a data system that’s still evolving.
Long term, state and local officials say they’re working to make it easy for families to get reliable measures of school effectiveness and student achievement.
Newcomers often marvel at the intensity of public interest in education in Charlotte. So even if you’re arriving at a challenging time, you’ll quickly find plenty of people ready to share advice, information and opinions.
Ann covers education for the Observer.
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