Living Here Guide

7 things you need to know about K-12 education in the Charlotte area

Students arrive at Druid Hills Academy Tuesday morning for their second day of classes._ It's back-to-school time for four schools, including Druid Hills Academy, trying year-round schedules. Druid Hills was one of two that actually opened Monday so Tuesday was their second day of classes.
Students arrive at Druid Hills Academy Tuesday morning for their second day of classes._ It's back-to-school time for four schools, including Druid Hills Academy, trying year-round schedules. Druid Hills was one of two that actually opened Monday so Tuesday was their second day of classes. Charlotte Observer staff file photo

There are few things people in Charlotte are more passionate about than their child’s school.

Not only is Charlotte home to the second-largest public school district in North Carolina – there is also a large and growing number of students going to charter and private schools. Here are seven things you should know about education in the region this year.

CMS is huge – and growing. With more than 145,000 students, the public Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district clocks in as the second-biggest in North Carolina, behind only Wake County. That’s also good enough for the 18th largest district in the United States, according to American School and University magazine. And the district is still growing quickly. Fueled by migration, CMS has added roughly 2,500 new students per year over the past half decade.

Charter school boom. Ever since North Carolina lifted a restriction on the number of charter schools the state can have, these schools have been popping up in droves – and nowhere more so than Mecklenburg County. The county is now home to 21 charter schools, with another three set to open for the first time this fall. The boom hasn’t been without problems: Two charter schools in Charlotte were forced to close suddenly last year amid financial difficulties. But charter schools are gaining in popularity. More than 12,000 students are expected to attend Mecklenburg charters this year.

Private schools get a boost. Charlotte is also home to a robust private school community. Seven of them top 1,000 students. After the state’s Supreme Court upheld a voucher program that helps lower-income students pay for private schools, the number of children attending them in Mecklenburg County could continue to grow. More than 230 students in the county used the “Opportunity Scholarship” program last year.

Keep an eye on the former Teacher of the Year. For the first time in decades, a CMS teacher was named the state’s Teacher of the Year in 2014. James Ford spent the last year criss-crossing the state – but now he’s back in Charlotte. Instead of returning to the classroom, he’s taken a position with the Public School Forum of North Carolina, with the goal of supporting teachers and impoverished students.

Watch for a school assignment shake-up. The Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board has embarked on a yearlong project that could remake how the district decides which school students are sent to. For years, CMS has had a system where every child is guaranteed a “home school” close to their neighborhood where he or she is guaranteed a spot. There is also a variety of magnet school programs that parents can choose, with entry decided by lottery.

School board members are now considering whether to keep the current system largely intact, or shaking things up. As it is, many home schools are divided by race and socioeconomic status. Board member Tom Tate raised the prospect of doing something “dramatic” to make schools more diverse.

Looking for a new leader. CMS Superintendent Ann Clark is scheduled to retire from the district in early 2016, and the school board is on its way toward deciding on a new leader. This new superintendent will have the task of leading the district after one of the more messy departures in CMS history. Former Superintendent Heath Morrison resigned suddenly in November after the majority of the school board lost confidence in him. The move strained relations on the board and in the community.

There also surely will be new leaders on the school board. The three at-large seats on the board are up for election this fall, and vice chairman Tim Morgan has already said that he won’t run again.

Focus on literacy. As long as Clark is at the helm, literacy will be the biggest buzzword in CMS. She is constantly describing literacy as the district’s “North Star,” and boosting reading and writing skills makes up a large part of her plans for the district. At the same time, a new organization known as Read Charlotte has come together with the goal of doubling the percentage of third-graders reading proficiently over the next decade. The group has serious money behind it, and the support of big corporations and civic leaders across the city.

Andrew is a former education reporter for the Observer.

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