Popular charter shows appeal of choice

Lake Norman Charter School just recently scraped together money to build a permanent middle school. Next up: A new building next door for high school.

“We run a tight ship financially,” says board chair Tom Ghareeb, who has four children there. “There are no buses; you have to take your child to school. There's no cafeteria; you have to make your child's lunch.”

Yet the Huntersville school, which offers an alternative approach to public education, is growing steadily, with waiting lists to get in. Ghareeb says families are drawn by a rigorous college-prep education in a smaller setting than Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools offers.

Families in the Charlotte region have plenty of choice in education. As both public money and family incomes get tight, everyone is looking for ways to keep an edge.

Almost one in five Mecklenburg students opts out of traditional public schools, enrolling in religious, private or charter schools, or being taught by family members.

Private-school officials say they're keeping a wary eye on the economy. Banks and other high-paying employers are cutting jobs. Gas prices hit families who drive long distances to private schools. But so far there's been no exodus, they say.

“Generally speaking, the mood has been very cautious, but not panic,” said Bill Wilson, southeastern regional director for the Association of Christian Schools International.

Charter schools, which get public money but don't report to local school boards, will remain in the spotlight this year. State test results coming out this fall will show whether KIPP Academy, a national charter chain that opened in Charlotte last year, logs the same impressive results with low-income urban students that it has in other cities.

Five charters will continue their legal battle to get more county money from Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. A judge ruled last year that CMS skimped on the share that should be passed along to the charters, but the district has appealed.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign may ratchet up the debate over how much public money should be spent on alternatives to public schools. In a televised interview earlier this week, GOP candidate John McCain touted “choice and competition, (including) home schooling, charter schools, vouchers” as the best route to reform.

Public schools are competing by offering their own menus of options. South Carolina has launched a statewide push to create single-sex classes, Montessori programs and other choices.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools already has such a complex array of magnets that the school board is trying to pare the menu to more practical proportions. Many view those magnets as a key to keeping families from jumping to private schools, but others worry that the expense for busing kids across the county is becoming prohibitive.

During the summer, more than 1,000 people turned out to talk about revamping the magnet program, which currently provides 15 themes, from Chinese immersion to math/science, in 50 schools. Next week a new military magnet for middle and high-school students opens at the former Marie G. Davis Middle School site.

In September the school board will get serious about crafting a new approach to magnets.

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