South Charlotte

To parents, charter schools worth the extra drive time and fuel costs

For three years, Suzanne Brickner burned six gallons of gas every weekday taking her daughters to and from school.

The Brickners live in Concord. Daughters Rebecca and Megan attend Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy, a charter school for highly gifted children. It's on Endhaven Lane, near the Stonecrest shopping center.

Charter schools are publicly funded, but aren't required to provide transportation for students. So it's up to parents to form car-pooling networks if they want to save on costs.

In southern Mecklenburg, charter schools including Metrolina, Queen's Grant and Socrates Academy draw students from several counties. Some travel even farther than the Brickners, coming from as far as Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston and Iredell counties.

“We love the school so much we think it's worth it,” Brickner says. “It's like getting a private education without paying tuition. Even now, gas is a minimal cost for what we're getting, considering we don't pay tuition.”

Metrolina offers an accelerated curriculum for students who are “highly gifted,” said Director Marie Peine.

Brickner said they tried public schools in Cabarrus County, but never found a good fit for Rebecca, a rising eighth-grader and Megan, a rising fifth-grader.

“It is a haul,” Brickner says. “When the gas prices went up I started keeping track of how many miles I was driving … Over the span of the school year it's like, ‘wow, we better think about some other options.' But then you think about how the education you're getting is worth more than the cost of getting to school. ”

With today's gas prices of about $3.90 a gallon, Brickner's commute would add up to about $117 a week.

But last school year the Brickner girls scored seats on Metrolina's one bus, via the school's lottery.

“Now I drive them down in the morning and the bus brings them halfway back in the afternoon,” Suzanne Brickner says.

It's cut her drive time by about a third. But she would've kept the girls at the school even if they hadn't gotten seats on the bus, she says.

The school has lost a few students because the commute was too much, and a few teachers have expressed concerns over rising commuting costs. But overall, Peine says, teachers and families are committed to making it work.

“We've seen an increase in car pooling,” Peine said. “It's rare to see a car drop off just one student anymore.”

At Queen's Grant in Mint Hill, parents are encouraged to use a car pool bulletin board to find families who want to team up.

“It's a pretty popular thing,” said secretary Lezli Leath.

The lower grade school has about 700 students, and most live within 10 miles. But even families who live nearby are teaming up to cut gas spending.

Leath said the school unfortunately recently lost a teacher who said she couldn't afford the commute from her home in the Lake Norman area.

Socrates Academy, a classical school on Weddington Road in Matthews, will have 280 students this school year. Many live in southern Mecklenburg, but some have commuted from Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston and Iredell counties, said principal Janis Dellinger-Holton.

And Socrates teachers come from as far as Rock Hill and the Lake Norman area.

“It's not much of a sacrifice to get an education that we're excited about,” said Pam Dancu, president of the parent-faculty group at Socrates.

“The parents are on the board of directors, and we have an awful lot of input. We have a bigger say in the direction of the school (than public school parents do). Parents find that all to be critically important.”