Competition and choice will bring change when Charlotte’s schools open Monday

Monday’s start of school brings an unusual level of change for families throughout the Charlotte area.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is opening three new schools. At the same time, the district rolls out changes in magnet programs, boundaries and grade levels that affect 87 of the district’s 175 schools. Most of those shifts were approved during two years of hotly-debated student assignment work in 2016 and 2017 but are just taking effect now.

Two new charter schools will also debut, joining the roster of almost 50 independent public schools serving Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties.

All of this comes as the region’s public schools are competing for a dwindling pool of children, after decades of growth that left school districts scrambling to catch up. CMS is projecting its first overall enrollment slump, albeit a small one, and the state forced one of the three Charlotte charter schools approved to open this year to delay until 2019 because pre-registration was too low.

While there are downsides — any school that comes up short of students may have to lay off teachers and/or cut programs — the intense competition means families have an ever-broader array of options for their kids.

Here’s what to look for.

Three new CMS schools

Charlotte East Language Academy, a K-8 school where classes will be taught in English and Spanish, brings new life to the long-vacant and still-struggling Eastland Mall site. The new school combines a neighborhood zone and a magnet program, expanding on the Spanish language magnets offered at Collinswood and Oaklawn language academies.

It’s the first time neighborhood students will be assigned to a school where English isn’t the only language . Most students will arrive fluent in one or both languages — about half the students are expected to be Hispanic — but with the large and diverse international population in east Charlotte, some students will come from homes where Burmese, Nepali and other languages are spoken.

Wilson STEM Academy, a west Charlotte middle school, reopens a site that was closed during controversial shut-downs sparked by the recession. It combines a neighborhood zone and magnet seats, with all students participating in the science, technology, engineering and math theme.

Villa Heights Elementary in Charlotte’s North Davidson area revives another school that was closed during the recession. It’s now a neighborhood elementary school. Both Wilson and Villa Heights briefly housed charter schools before CMS reclaimed them.

Lindsay Gibbs, a kindergarten teacher at Dilworth Elementary, sets up her new room at the Sedgefield campus of the newly merged school. The former Sedgefield Elementary will now serve the youngest children at Dilworth. John D. Simmons

Two new charters

East Voyager Academy in west Charlotte brings a new twist to Charlotte’s charter scene: Students will be taught in Mandarin Chinese. CMS’ Waddell Language Academy offers Chinese immersion as well, but this is the first time an independent school has offered language immersion in the region. The school will open with grades K-4, eventually expanding to K-8.

Mountain Island Day Community Charter School, a K-12 school that’s also in west Charlotte, made an unusual conversion from a private Christian school to a public charter school. The founders said the influx of public money allows them to support the demands of a high school, which was added recently. Explicit religious instruction will be dropped while a focus on character and service remains.

The state had also approved Apprentice Academy High School, which will focus on career/tech education, to open this year in Union County. But as the opening date approached, the state insisted on a one-year delay to build enrollment. The school plans to take 2019-20 applications in January.

Charter schools, which are run by independent nonprofit boards, accept students across county lines.

Other CMS changes

Almost half of all schools will see some type of change this year. The most dramatic transformation will come as six schools, serving about 4,000 students, merge into three, part of an attempt to boost academic performance and fight resegregation.

Many neighborhood schools will see boundary changes and/or new magnet programs added, while a few magnet schools are adding neighborhood zones.

CMS says a relatively small number of students — about 3,700, or less than 3 percent of total enrollment — will switch schools because of these changes. But the impact will be broader. For instance, any school that includes a magnet program will offer the specialty courses to all students, who may get new opportunities without switching schools.

There’s also the question of whether boundary changes will strengthen schools or drive away families who are unhappy with the change. Every year some schools see unexpected growth while others fall short of projections, leading to a shuffle in teaching jobs.

Answers will start shaping up Monday, but won’t be clear then. Public schools report their official enrollment counts in the fall, after taking first- and second-month tallies.

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Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms