The nine new charter schools that opened in the Charlotte area this fall amid a rapid expansion now enroll about half the number of students they had projected, according to data released by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction.
The figures support complaints from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools that the district found itself with thousands more students than expected. They also underscore the difficulty in launching a new school and recruiting enough families to make it viable long term.
Statewide, about 67,700 students were enrolled in charter schools for this school year, the state numbers show. That compares with about 58,000 last year.
Mecklenburg County charters enroll about 10,800 this year, virtually unchanged from the year before despite the new schools.
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Eleven local charter schools were given final approval to open in fall 2014 in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. Two, the Charlotte STEM Academy and Stewart Creek High School, later asked for and were granted an extra year to get ready.
Nine charters ultimately opened their doors for the start of the school year. Together, they had projected enrollment of more than 3,100 in their first year.
The new state data show the nine schools had about only 1,750 in the classroom.
That figure counts 109 students at Concrete Roses STEM Academy. The school shut its doors Sept. 20 after the state put it on “financial disciplinary status” and froze its cash. Some of those students may have gone to other charter schools, but CMS has said that many re-enrolled.
Charter schools are public, don’t charge tuition, and are operated with taxpayer money under independent boards. Mecklenburg has 22 charter schools, more than any other county in the state.
Charters receive their first allocations of public dollars in July, a month or so before the school opens, based on their projected enrollment.
In later months, the state adjusts the amount of money given to the school based on how many students actually attend classes.
The state gave the nine new charters a combined initial allotment of $11.6 million, records show. That money was intended to make up a third of their state funding for the year.
Based on the actual number of students attending, the next round of state funding should be less.
CMS had projected that about 13,500 students in the county would attend charter schools this year. Since fewer students enrolled in charter schools and more students enrolled in CMS schools, the district had less money available at the beginning of the year for teachers.
The state should even up with CMS, but district leaders warned this fall there was no guarantee they would be made whole.
The General Assembly lifted a long-standing cap on charters in 2011, and dozens of new schools began opening across the state last school year.
The region’s new charters have suffered a number of setbacks since the summer, ranging from difficulty getting their buildings ready to ineffective marketing.
Entrepreneur High, for example, spent the first two months of the school year in a temporary space that didn’t allow for the type of hands-on workshops administrators had promised prospective students.
Enrollment plummeted and continued to decline as the weeks dragged on, Principal Hans Plotseneder said. While more than 320 students signed up to attend on the school’s website, enrollment came in at just 78, according to Department of Public Instruction figures.
The state sent the school a letter last week identifying “documentation and procedural deficiencies,” primarily in enrollment record keeping. The Department of Public Instruction also sent inspectors to verify the number of students attending. One count last Tuesday found as few as 47 students at school in the morning, the letter states. The state placed the school on probationary status of financial noncompliance.
Entrepreneur High moved into its permanent building, off Central Avenue and Albemarle Road, three weeks ago, Plotseneder said. The school will be able to survive financially, he said, because it does not have to pay rent for its first two years. It has also stopped paying for breakfast, lunch and busing.
Plotseneder said the school hopes to get its enrollment up to 120 for the spring semester. He said he’s planning a day of outreach to the Latino community surrounding the school.
Charlotte Learning Academy, on Scaleybark Road in south Charlotte, has also had trouble meeting enrollment projections. The school expected 400 students in its first year. Instead, it has 145.
The school has had to lay off staff and cut salaries to make the budget work, Chairwoman Pamela Farewell said.
“I think that many people in the Charlotte area are really not too familiar with charter schools and all the things they have to offer,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s the parents’ decision on where they want to take their kid. And if they don’t know anything about you, they won’t trust you.”
Tax dollars at stake
The charter funding system doesn’t always work perfectly. Concrete Roses, for example, had spent $285,170 before it decided to shut down.
“Starting a charter school is an enormous task,” said Debbie Clary, a former Republican state lawmaker from Cleveland County who now serves on the board of directors of the N.C. Alliance of Public Charter Schools.
She said charter school founders can be passionate about education and knowledgeable about running a classroom, but it would still be difficult to make it without marketing ability and deep pockets backing their efforts.
Clary also said that not giving charter schools money until the month before school hinders their ability to launch. Without money, it’s hard to secure a building. Without a building, it’s hard to recruit students. Without students, the state doesn’t allocate money.
“It’s a chicken and egg thing,” she said. “The system is set up to fail.”