If you’ve got school-age children – or 3- and 4-year-olds about to start – you’re a hot commodity in the Charlotte region right now.
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is pushing choice like never before, rolling out new magnets and marketing itself in new ways. Charter schools are expanding. And if you want to switch to a private school, North Carolina has a growing scholarship fund that might help with tuition.
All children are guaranteed a place at a school in their district, but for families who want to consider options now is the time to make decisions for 2017-18. Here’s a guide to sorting it out.
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CMS is the behemoth, with roughly 147,000 students and 170 schools. It serves just over three-quarters of Mecklenburg’s students. Most of them attend schools that their neighborhood is zoned for, but about 22,000 are in magnets or alternative settings such as college-based high schools.
Charter schools are the upstart, expanding rapidly since the state lifted its 100-school cap in 2011. They’re run by independent nonprofit boards, though many are managed by for-profit chains. Charter schools take students across county lines. About three dozen currently operate in Mecklenburg and adjacent counties, with a handful more opening in August.
Private schools have traditionally been the domain of the relatively privileged, but North Carolina offers scholarships, also known as vouchers, to support low-income and or disabled students who want to pursue that path. Mecklenburg has about 90 independent and religious schools serving about 18,500 students.
Students will be eligible for most CMS and charter schools if they turn 5 by Aug. 31 and enter kindergarten. But CMS has Montessori magnet schools that start with prekindergarten, which means children who will turn 4 by that date can apply.
The North Carolina Office of Charter Schools offers a directory of charter schools and other information about how those schools work. Start at www.ncpublicschools.org/charterschools. Each school sets its own application period, so check school websites for details.
Many private schools start with transitional or prekindergarten; check individual schools for age limits and application periods. Find a private school directory and other information at http://ncadmin.nc.gov/citizens/private-school-information
Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina has also created a website to look up public and private options near your home. Go to www.ncschoolsaroundme.com and enter an address to get a list and map.
Looking under the hood
There’s plenty of data available on district and charter schools. It ranges from a fairly simplistic letter grade, based on student performance on state exams, to details on academic performance, teacher qualifications, graduation rates and safety data. Start your lookup at www.ncpublicschools.org/src/
For charter schools, see if the school you’re interested in is part of a chain, such as Charter Schools USA or National Heritage Academies. If so, you can look up more about that group’s approach and talk to families who have attended nearby schools with the same parent group.
It’s up to private schools to decide what to reveal to prospective families. They don’t have to administer state exams so it’s hard to make direct comparisons, but many will tell you how students performed on the tests they use.
No matter what type of school you’re considering, some of your best information will come from school visits and talking to current or former families.
What about money?
Public schools don’t charge tuition – with one exception. For Montessori prekindergarten, CMS charges $3,000 a year for full-day or $2,200 a year for part-day, with a transportation fee of about $740 for students who ride the bus both ways. The district offers income-based scholarships.
Charter schools don’t charge tuition, but some don’t provide buses or school lunches.
For private schools, annual tuition ranges from more than $20,000 a year to about a quarter of that. Many private schools offer scholarships.
North Carolina provides annual Opportunity Scholarship grants of up to $4,200 a year for low- to moderate-income families who want to move their children from public to private schools. Eligibility is based on income and household size; next year a family of four that makes $45,510 qualifies for the full scholarship, while those earning up to $60,528 can get 90 percent of tuition paid. Applications for next year are open through March 1.
The state also offers up to $6,000 a year for students with disabilities to attend a private school. If a student has disabilities and meets the income guidelines, that students can get aid from both programs, for up to $10,200 a year. Applications for the disability grants open in May.
Get details for both programs, including income guidelines and lists of participating private schools, at www.ncseaa.edu/K-12Grants.htm.
What are the odds?
If demand is high enough, your child will end up in an admission lottery for charter schools and CMS magnets.
CMS lists its lottery results for past years (type “lottery results” into the search bar for the district’s site). Large wait lists indicate which schools are most in demand. But the district has introduced new wrinkles by moving some programs, introducing new ones and introducing a new priority system based on socioeconomic status. So this year it’s hard to gauge any given student’s chances of admission to their top-choice magnet.
Many charter schools also have long waiting lists. But don’t get too discouraged: Because some families enter lotteries for several schools and don’t remove their names once they’ve chosen one, wait lists for CMS and charter schools can shrink quickly when school begins.
Private schools, of course, set their own criteria for admission. This can include pre-admission testing, religious requirements and even bans on LGBT students, even if the schools accept state scholarships.
The deadline for getting into the first CMS lottery is Tuesday. Families will be notified of their children’s assignment in early March.
For CMS magnet programs that still have space available, there will be a second application period in March, with notification in mid-April.