Your Schools

Consultants offer $100-an-hour help picking Charlotte schools

Suzanne Cormier, Amanda “Boo” Raymond and Rachel Hunt (l-r) are launching Charlotte School Search.
Suzanne Cormier, Amanda “Boo” Raymond and Rachel Hunt (l-r) are launching Charlotte School Search.

For years I’ve heard people say choosing a school in Mecklenburg County is so complex that someone should start a business offering guidance.

Now three south Charlotte women are doing just that. For $100 an hour, Charlotte School Search will offer personalized help with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools options, charter schools and private schools in central and south Charlotte.

Rachel Hunt says the idea started when her father, former N.C. Gov. James Hunt, noted that other cities have school-search consultants and suggested starting a firm in Charlotte. Rachel Hunt is a CMS parent, a lawyer and a recently certified college counselor.

She connected with two friends who also bring personal and professional expertise. Amanda “Boo” Raymond is a former teacher and volunteer child advocate who also has kids in CMS (local political junkies know her as the force behind League of Women Voters televised debates). Suzanne Cormier is a former guidance counselor who has taught educational psychology at Winthrop University – and yes, also a CMS mom.

“We’ve been doing this informally for years,” Hunt said.

While they say they’re public school advocates, the founders recognize that alternatives can be essential for some families – or even for some children within a family. And people who plan to enroll students in CMS still have to choose among neighborhood schools, magnets and other opt-in schools. Some have admission requirements. Most start with kindergarten, but with some magnets you’re almost out of luck if you don’t enroll your 4-year-old.

Things get even more varied when you look at charter schools, which are tuition free, take students across county lines and may or may not offer transportation or meals. With private schools, which are plentiful around here, the challenge can be sorting through the marketing to figure out what students really get for the money.

“I think it’s just overwhelming to have so many choices, but there’s no one place to get all the information,” said Raymond, who moved to Charlotte from Austin, Texas, about a decade ago. She was bombarded with advice about schools to choose and schools to avoid, and saw battles over student assignment playing out at school board meetings.

I heard about the fledgling business from a colleague who was checking out Barringer Academic Center, a CMS elementary school that includes a magnet program for gifted students. Hunt was sitting in a parent session, avidly taking notes.

All three founders say they’re putting in personal time at schools so they can tell families about more than just the data. Most schools are welcoming, Raymond and Hunt said. A few are not. That’s something parents may encounter as well, they say.

The turf Charlotte School Search covers encompasses some of the county’s most affluent neighborhoods and some swaths of poverty. The founders recognize that some families who need help can’t afford the fees for one-on-one guidance, but they also plan to offer 90-minute parent seminars for $15.

They’re gearing up with a new school year, which may bring some newcomers still trying to figure out the education scene. And it won’t be long until open houses and marketing begins for 2016-17; magnet and private schools start taking applications in January.

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

Tips from the pros

1. Don’t be afraid to make a change if your child isn’t thriving at his or her current school.

2. Visit any school you’re considering. Don’t settle for an open house or quick walk-through; see the teachers and students in action. Watch the kids’ faces and body language. Look at the dynamics in the halls and classes. Would your child fit here?

3. Make sure you understand transportation options. There’s a lot of variation at magnets, charters and private schools.

4. Ask about tutoring, after-school programs and extracurricular activities, depending on your child’s needs and interests.

5. Use data, but only as a framework. School letter grades (available for district and charter schools, based on student test scores) don’t give a full, clear picture of how your child will fare.