Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools added only about 200 students this year, well below the modest forecast of 750 and the closest thing to a no-growth year in recent memory.
Recently released tallies for 2017-18 show CMS with 147,359 students, an increase of about one-tenth of 1 percent over 2016. Without an influx of more than 1,650 new Hispanic students, North Carolina’s second-largest school district would face declining enrollment.
But the numbers vary dramatically from school to school, and they don’t always reflect the overall demographic trends. Two majority-white high schools, Ardrey Kell and Myers Park, surpassed South Mecklenburg, which has a roughly even mix of Hispanic, white and black students. All three now top 3,100 students, making them among the largest public schools in North Carolina.
Enrollment numbers matter because they affect the amount of public money available for education in any given area, as well as the placement of teachers and locations of new schools. Ultimately, school districts that lose enrollment may face school closings and dwindling public confidence.
For years CMS has had the opposite challenge. Before the recession it was adding as many as 5,000 students a year, creating dire school crowding and a constant demand to hire more teachers.
Growth slowed when the economy crashed. And in 2011 the state lifted its 100-school cap on charter schools, leading to a surge of the independent public schools in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. In the Charlotte area and across the state, most of the enrollment growth in recent years has gone to charter schools.
Still, CMS serves about three-quarters of all school-age children in Mecklenburg County. And it has logged growth every year except one, when a 2009 change in the eligibility date for kindergarten reduced that class by almost 3,000 students.
The district has been ratcheting up its own magnet programs and specialty themes in an effort to compete with charters and private schools, which can now get state vouchers for low- to moderate-income families who move their children out of public schools.
“In Mecklenburg County there’s a wide range of school choices and options,” said Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell.
During budget planning, CMS planners forecast that the district would add about 750 students, while the number of Mecklenburg students in charter schools would rise from almost 17,000 last year to about 19,500 this year. It’s not clear how close that estimate was, Craven-Howell says, because several of the 47 charter schools that take Mecklenburg students have yet to report their official count.
Nor is it clear whether Wake County, the largest North Carolina district and the one most comparable with CMS, saw a slump in growth. That district has not released its student tally either.
What is clear is that the opening of new charter schools and the closing of some unsuccessful ones has made it harder for CMS to predict who will show up each August. Charter schools often open in areas of rapid growth or high frustration with traditional public schools. Even as CMS pitches a Nov. 7 bond vote that would relieve crowding at the large southern high schools and in the booming international communities of east Charlotte, proposed new charter schools are zeroing in on similar areas.
For years, CMS has watched the number of black and white students slowly decline, while Hispanic and Asian enrollment has surged. While Asian students remain a small minority, at not quite 7 percent of total enrollment this year, Hispanic students have risen from 6 percent of the student body in 2000 to 24 percent this year, nearly closing in on white students at 28 percent. Black students remain the largest group at 38 percent.
According to the U.S. Census, which uses a different method of tracking race and ethnicity than CMS, about 16.5 percent of Mecklenburg’s school-age children are Hispanic.
Since 2007, CMS has grown by just over 15,000 students, with an increase of about 15,900 Hispanic students and 3,900 Asian students. During that same time white enrollment declined by about 4,700 and black enrollment by 3,900.
Those changes appear to be driven by immigration and birth rates, as well as by family choice. Hispanic students have traditionally been underrepresented in North Carolina’s charter schools.
Families who are new to the country can find more family support and student services in CMS, which serves more than 37,000 students who speak a language other than English at home. Craven-Howell says Spanish-speaking families have even been reluctant to take part in the CMS magnet lottery, which requires parents to submit a request for schools with specialized programs.
CMS has been sending more bilingual staff into schools and community gathering spots to talk to Spanish-speaking families about magnets and is expanding a popular dual-language magnet program that lets K-8 students learn in both Spanish and English.
The enrollment numbers “have impressed on me the importance of engaging our community,” Craven-Howell said. “People have to know about the opportunities.”