Amid NC charter school growth, enrollment in Charlotte schools is feast or famine

North Carolina’s charter schools added almost 10,000 students this year, state tallies show. The Charlotte area continues as a hub of charter activity, with schools such as Lincoln, Lake Norman and Pine Lake Prep dwarfing others around the state.

Yet half a dozen Charlotte-area charter schools lost students this year, falling far below the numbers they projected when the state approved their independent boards to get public money for education. Because a charter school’s budget is based on enrollment, that leaves shrinking — and often struggling — charter schools with less money to educate their students, let alone market and rebuild.

“If you blow it, parents choose to go elsewhere,” said Charles Nusinov, director of nine Carolinas schools run by Charter Schools USA. One of those schools lost enrollment this year as it tries to recover from early leadership struggles, he said.

The feast-or-famine enrollments illustrate the challenge of planning for public education when competition is fierce but the number of school-age children appears to be leveling off. That challenge matters not just to families choosing schools — the 2019-20 application period is just gearing up — but to taxpayers who will be on the hook if either CMS or charter schools fail to thrive.

Experts have begun talking about a national baby bust. The nonprofit education-focused Hechinger Report reported in November that some projections indicate total public school enrollment could be down by 8.5 percent in the next decade.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has seen virtually no growth in the past two years, despite years of steady increases before that.

First-month enrollment tallies show North Carolina has 111,632 students in 190 charter schools, up from just over 102,000 in 177 schools last year. In recent years a majority of N.C. school districts have seen enrollment decline or flatten as charters grow. This year’s total for districts is not complete because some schools hit hard by Hurricane Florence have not submitted September tallies.

Mecklenburg County had 19,443 students enrolled in about 40 charter schools in September, up from 18,467 the year before. But CMS, which must pass along a share of county money for each student who chooses charters, had expected about twice as much charter school growth, said Assistant Superintendent Akeshia Craven-Howell.

What’s going on?

Some have assumed that North Carolina’s steady growth in charter enrollment, which has been concentrated in urban areas such as Charlotte and the Triangle, means there’s an unlimited appetite for such schools.

The reality is more complicated. Demand continues to surge for all types of public schools in some areas of Mecklenburg County — that means overcrowding for neighborhood schools and long waiting lists for charters — while location or reputation makes others a tough sell.

Take East Voyager Academy, the only truly new charter school to open in Charlotte this year (a second converted from a private school, while a third delayed its opening because of trouble attracting students). It’s exactly what charter schools are meant to be: A new academic opportunity, created by a local board with a vision. In this case, members of Charlotte’s Chinese American community crafted a plan for a Chinese immersion school, modeled on a similar charter school in Columbia, S.C.

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Yan Han teaches a kindergarten class at East Voyager Academy, a Chinese immersion charter school that opened with grades K-4. Diedra Laird

The board bought a church building on Tuckaseegee Road, across the street from West Mecklenburg High School. It’s a part of town that has seen district and charter schools struggle.

The board hired Tim Murph, who had run charter schools in South Carolina, to lead East Voyager. Because charter budgets have to cover facilities, faculty and all operating costs, there wasn’t much to spare for marketing. And he discovered it could be difficult to get parents’ attention in an area as saturated with school options as Charlotte.

“Here in Charlotte it’s almost like a huge forest and we’re a teeny little tree,” Murph said.

The plan that won state approval called for East Voyager to open with 365 K-4 students. The first month’s tally was 89 — barely above the state minimum of 80.

Cheryl Turner, a longtime Charlotte charter school head who serves on the state’s Charter School Advisory Board, says state officials expect start-ups to be small and aren’t rattled when new schools come in below projections.

Murph says East Voyager has already grown to about 120 students — a racially and ethnically diverse group that’s not, perhaps surprisingly, heavy on Chinese Americans. Many have parents who immigrated from Latin America, Africa or other parts of Asia and see this as an opportunity for their children to learn two new languages, English and Chinese.

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Most of the students at East Voyager Academy, a charter school founded by Chinese Americans, are not from Chinese families, the principal says. Instead, he says, they’re a mix of American and immigrant families from around the globe. Diedra Laird

Murph notes that the former Harvest Church has plenty of room for the school to grow. The plan calls for more than 700 K-8 students after five years. Murph hopes his school will build a reputation for strong academics as well as the opportunity to master Chinese.

“We want to be the strongest math school in the city of Charlotte,” he said.

Hard to recover

A rough beginning can start a downward spiral.

Cabarrus Charter Academy, which opened in Concord in 2013, had leadership issues in the early years, Nusinov said. It has the Florida-based management chain to turn to for support, but this year enrollment dropped by about 170. Instead of the 1,745 students it had projected having by now, it had just under 800 in September.

Nusinov, a former CMS administrator, noted that a large district has the budget and administrative staff to support a school that’s going through turmoil. But at charter schools, enrollment slumps mean budget cuts. “If we have to reduce, we reduce,” he said.

A more dramatic example is Lakeside Charter Academy, a K-8 school in Cornelius that reported a September enrollment of 92. It opened in 2014 as Thunderbird Prep, with a plan to have 10 times that enrollment by now. But the school hit a highly publicized series of problems with its finances, leadership, building and faculty retention.

Turner noted that the school now has a new name, new management and a rent-free arrangement with its landlord.

“They claim things will be improving fiscally and they will be able to build enrollment next year,” Turner said in November, after the school’s leaders reported to the state advisory board in October. The state is watching closely to see if that happens, she said.

Other charter schools that saw significant enrollment declines include Charlotte Choice, Charlotte Secondary, Invest Collegiate: Transform and UpRoar Leadership Academy. All were graded D or F on the latest state report cards, based on student performance on exams. That’s often a sign that a school serves large numbers of disadvantaged students.

Similar trends in CMS

CMS leaders must plan staffing for 175 schools in real time and construction for a decade or more down the road. They face some of the same challenges: Some schools are huge and surrounded by mobile classrooms, while others are underfilled.

New CMS schools also tend to open small. This year Charlotte East Language Academy, Villa Heights Elementary and Wilson STEM Academy all opened well below capacity. With an annual budget of $1.4 billion and a work force that tops 19,000, the district can cover for small schools while they build enrollment.

District leaders say the task of planning new schools has grown far more complex since the General Assembly authorized four suburban towns in Mecklenburg County to create their own charter schools this summer. Those schools, which would still require state approval, could supplement their state and county money with local tax revenue and offer priority seating to town residents.

CMS leaders say that creates the prospect that the district could plan a new school, get voter approval for bonds and launch construction, only to have a town charter school open nearby and compete for the same students. That’s already a challenge with regular charter schools, which tend to target such high-growth neighborhoods as the UNC Charlotte area and southwest Charlotte.

CMS recently convened an advisory panel designed to get representatives of all seven Mecklenburg municipalities working together on school planning. At the first meeting earlier this month, a city of Charlotte planner projected the county will add almost 71,000 school-age children in the next two decades.

But she acknowledged that’s an extrapolation based on 2015 data, while the slump that many national experts attribute to declining birth rates and an immigration slowdown has emerged in the last couple of years.

And even if the numbers prove correct, there’s still the question of which options families will choose. Based on the latest numbers, CMS serves about 76 percent of the county’s school-age children, with private and charter schools accounting for about 10 percent each and home-schooling for the remainder.

While charter and district schools compete, the same taxpayers are footing the bill for all of them. And if declining enrollment forces any school to close, the turmoil ripples into others nearby.

North Carolina has seen 46 charter schools close since 1997, when the state created its first such schools, according to a February report to the General Assembly. Sixteen of the closures — including half a dozen in Charlotte — have occurred since 2011, when the state lifted the 100-school limit and new schools began springing up. The main reason for closure, according to the Department of Public Instruction’s report, are financial issues, often related to low enrollment.

During the recession CMS closed several underfilled and/or low-performing schools to save money, creating distrust and division that has lingered for years

That means the CMS board, the charter boards and the state Board of Education that rules on new charter schools all face a tough question: Where will the kids be in coming years?

Ann Doss Helms has covered education for the Observer since 2002, long enough to watch a generation of kids go from preK to college. She is a repeat winner of the North Carolina Press Association’s education reporting award.