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School choice boom brings options, challenges for families

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  • Interactive Map: New charter, CMS schools
  • Tips for checking out CMS, charter schools
  • School choice events

    • CMS will hold a 2014-15 “options fair” from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday at Phillip O. Berry Academy of Technology, 1430 Alleghany St. Information will be available about magnets, career-tech programs and other CMS options. The application period will run from Jan. 11 to Feb. 11. Details:

    • The N.C. Public Charter Schools Association will hold a charter fair in Charlotte from 6 to 8 p.m. Jan. 28 at the University Hilton, 8629 J.M. Keynes Drive. Information about new and existing charter schools will be provided for prospective students and employees. Details:

    • The South Mecklenburg Alliance of Responsible Taxpayers will hold a charter school forum from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Thursday at the Raintree Country Club clubhouse, 8600 Raintree Lane. Details:

  • Where Mecklenburg students go

    •  CMS: 144,140

    •  Charters: 10,823

    •  Private schools: 19,374

    •  Home-schooled: 6,573

    Source: CMS and charters, 2013-14, from CMS. Private and home schools, 2012-13, from N.C. Division of Non-Public Education.

An extraordinary season of school choice begins now, bringing new opportunities and challenges for parents around the Charlotte region.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools showcases dozens of new and existing magnets, career-tech programs and other specialty schools at a 2014-15 “options fair” Saturday. Students will have a chance to go to high school at UNC Charlotte or three Central Piedmont Community College campuses. Popular magnets for younger children are expanding to new sites, offering opportunities closer to home.

On Thursday, the state approved 11 new charter schools in the Charlotte region to open in 2014-15, bringing the total to 37 in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. Those schools, which don’t report to local school boards, are also taking applications.

The last time Mecklenburg County saw this much change was in 2002, when court-ordered desegregation in CMS ended and tens of thousands of students were reassigned in the ensuing “choice plan.”

“This is something you have to think about a year before they go to kindergarten. You have to do your research,” says Christy Holson, who applied for CMS magnets and several charters before her son, McKinley, started school in 2012.

But this year’s research season is crunched. Families must decide quickly on entering admission lotteries for new magnets and charter schools, some of which don’t yet have buildings or principals. By the end of February, all the seats in many popular schools will be taken.

That makes the open houses and information meetings going on in the next few weeks essential, parents and educators say.

“That is a must,” said Laura Mock, director of Pioneer Springs Community School, which is converting from a low-tuition private school to a tuition-free charter. Its January open houses are already booked, she said, but there are openings in February.

“Some people hear the word ‘charter’ and think, ‘Oh, better,’ ” Mock said. That’s a mistake, she says: “Every charter is different. Research and know what you’re signing up for.”

New twists on choice

The emergence of new charter schools, fueled by the legislature’s decision to lift a longstanding 100-school limit, brings a twist to school-shopping. Charters have more flexibility on everything from hiring and firing teachers to providing transportation and meals. They can have fewer certified teachers than regular public schools, and students can cross county lines to attend.

Each charter school is run by its own governing board, but some are affiliated by for-profit or nonprofit national chains. Others are part of formal or informal networks.

All of which means parents must ask more questions.

“It’s stressful. It feels like too many choices,” said Heidi Magi, a parent who lives in the UNC Charlotte area.

That area, including northeast Mecklenburg and southwest Cabarrus counties, has the most intense concentration of new charters, along with the new CMS/UNCC high school. Charter founders cite booming population, crowded schools and the popularity of charter schools in northern Mecklenburg County as driving forces.

Holson, who also lives in that area, wishes there had been more nearby options when McKinley started kindergarten. She entered the CMS magnet lottery and applied at five charters, located in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus and Iredell counties.

Her son got into three schools, none of which was perfect. She chose Pine Lake Preparatory School, a charter in Mooresville, 30 miles from home.

She’s delighted with the personal attention and the education her son is getting. But the commute eats into family time and opportunities to be involved at school.

Holson has put her son’s name into the 2014 lottery for two closer charter schools, though she’s not sure she’ll switch if he gets in. And she’s wary of all the new schools – too many unknowns, she says.

Taking a chance

Those unknowns are significant.

Several charter schools are still lining up sites. Most are just starting to recruit faculty as they take student applications. Many are also raising donations and grants to supplement the public money they’ll receive when schools open in August.

Likewise, CMS is still seeking principals for some of its new schools. Money for the new college-based CMS high schools must be approved by the state legislature, though Superintendent Heath Morrison said he believes that approval is a formality.

Helen Nance, who chairs the state advisory board that reviews charter applications, suggests the same starting points for new charters or other types of schools: Read the mission statement, visit the website and get to know the leaders.

More than a decade ago Nance was on the founding board of Gray Stone Day School in Stanly County, where she’s now chief administrative officer.

“When I was starting Gray Stone, I spent hours on the phone sharing our plans and goals with prospective families,” she said. “Schedule a meeting with administration and listen to what they have to say. Take any student-specific questions and ask them.”

Magi, whose son will be in first grade, has been doing just that. She has met with founders of two nearby start-up charters, United Community School and Pioneer Springs. Both will use the “Basic School” approach introduced by two other charter schools in north Mecklenburg, which emphasizes social skills and exploration as well as academics. She plans to apply to both.

Taking a chance on a brand-new school is “a concern, but it’s also exciting,” Magi says. “You can be part of creating that school culture.”

Research challenges

Many Charlotte-area families know the drill for checking out existing schools: Look up test scores and other data, narrow your search and visit schools.

But data research is unusually tough this year.

The state launched a new testing system last year. School-by-school results, normally released in the summer, didn’t come out until November. And because the new exams are designed to gauge more complex skills, most schools saw big drops in proficiency rates.

The state’s school report cards, which compile data on academic performance, safety and faculty at all public schools, won’t be out until Jan. 28.

CMS has been working on its own school data profiles. But the district has yet to release even basic enrollment information, citing problems with the new state PowerSchool data system. And on Friday, staff were still scrambling to get up-to-date magnet requirements posted in time for Saturday’s options fair.

The fair, which pulls together representatives from 47 schools offering magnets, career-tech themes and other options, is a four-hour event that kicks off the month-long CMS application period.

What it means

Choice and competition are reshaping the face of public education. The effects go far beyond the families entering lotteries this year, ultimately playing out in the region’s economy and the health of neighborhoods.

Eddie Goodall, a charter-school advocate and former state senator from Union County, contends that the charter boom spurs local districts to be more innovative.

“I think it’s a windfall for parents,” said Goodall, who leads the N.C. Public Charter School Association. “Most of us want to see the tide rise for all.”

Morrison agrees that choice and competition have benefits. He has launched a “redesign” process to encourage all CMS schools to find new says to meet the needs of students and communities.

“A wide variety of programs is essential to our success,” Morrison writes in the new options guide.

But he has also raised concerns that the state is authorizing too many charter schools too fast, with insufficient quality control.

Morrison has asked state lawmakers to level the playing field for charters and district schools. In some cases, that might mean more flexibility for districts, while in others that might mean tighter controls for charters.

Holson, who drives her son to Pine Lake charter, has mixed feelings. She’s glad to have an option that she believes is giving her son a far better education, but she knows not every parent can make a 30-mile drive.

“It’s unfortunate, but the charter school process weeds out a lot of people who have children who are equally deserving of an education,” she said.

“I think charter schools are a really good idea,” she said, “but it’s going to increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots.”

Helms: 704-358-5033; Twitter: @anndosshelms
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