Carolina Journal News Reports
RALEIGH — Uninspired by traditional public schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools district because of concerns over crowding and teacher turnover rates, Hillary Halstead waited with high hopes and crossed fingers that her daughter, a rising kindergarten student, would be selected in an enrollment lottery to attend a public charter school this fall.
“It’s very disheartening and disappointing,” Halstead said of not getting selected. “Your chances are very, very low if you don’t get in to the kindergarten” that a child will be selected in future charter school lotteries.
“The problem is they’re in such high demand,” she said. Once selected, students do not have to re-enter subsequent years’ lotteries as they move up in grade levels.
“People generally don’t leave the charter schools unless they move out of the area,” and siblings of current students get priority for slots that do open, Halstead said.
She is not alone in her despair. Waiting lists for North Carolina charter school seats have exploded into the tens of thousands statewide, and education officials are uncertain whether the bulging queues will recede even as more charter schools are approved this year.
Education officials and advocacy groups are pondering ways to better use those swollen waiting rolls for practical and policy applications.
Up to now, the waiting lists’ most viable function was to demonstrate the legislative need to eliminate the regulatory cap of 100 charter schools, according to Joel Medley, director of the Office of Charter Schools in the state Department of Public Instruction. The State Board of Education approved the first nine new charter schools earlier this month.
Medley said charter schools performing well academically with long waiting lines provide an opportunity for state officials to ask why.
“You’re probably going to want to look at that school for best practices. Parents really want to get into that school. Let’s see why,” Medley said.
“We had almost 29,000 last year on the wait list,” and that was with only 80 of the 100 charter schools responding to a survey, Medley said.
“It stands to reason it could be above 30,000” names on waiting lists this year, Medley said. The survey won’t be taken until after the enrollment period concludes in April or May, when some of the new charters complete their initial process.
It’s unclear whether the new charter schools will trim waiting lists or spur a larger wave of interest and waiting lists, Medley said.
Either way, the total probably doesn’t reflect the number of people who want to enroll their children in charter schools.
“People just hear from others about waiting lists and you don’t rush to get on a waiting list unless it’s at a restaurant,” said Eddie Goodall, executive director of the Charlotte-based N.C. Public Charter Schools Association.
Based on conversations with charter schools, Goodall believes “there’s tens of thousands” of interested students not showing up on the waiting lists. That’s because many parents don’t want to wade through a school’s application process already choked with hundreds, in some cases thousands, of lottery candidates. Others still mistakenly believe charter schools charge tuition, Goodall said.
Darrell Allison, executive director of Raleigh-based Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina, said tracking waiting lists could be used as justification to adjust how much charters can expand enrollment each year. That figure is now set at 20 percent, up from the previous 10 percent.
“Who knows, maybe this opens up the door for us to re-examine that” in a few years, Allison said. “There may be a case to be made for increasing that percentage by an additional 5 or 10 percent.”
Charter schools on a higher rung of excellence could be rewarded with a bonus percentage increase as an incentive to reach that measure of success, Allison said. Lower performing charters would not be eligible for such rewards because it is “not about getting more people into charter school environments (but) getting people into high-performing schools,” he said.
Voyager Academy High School in Durham will not take advantage of the 20 percent enrollment allowance that takes effect this year.
Principal Cory Draughon said Voyager is operating under its original growth plan approved by the state when it issued a charter to the school. Voyager can add 300 students under that plan, but would be limited to about 160 if it opted for the 20 percent rule. Voyager will add kindergarten through second grades and 11th grade in 2012-13.
“Amazingly, we had 2,900 applications this year. That’s our biggest year yet,” Draughon said.
Draughon said charters have varying methods of conducting lotteries. Given the huge waiting lists and the possibility of confusion among parents trying to determine how to navigate the varied lottery systems, he wondered if the state could explore “a digitized program where parents could get an account and check in on their information.”
Kevin Green, a director at Community School of Davidson, in Davidson, is a proponent of data collection. He suggested expanding waiting list information to distill trends.
As an example, he said, it could be determined regionally whether more parents from North Mecklenburg than South Mecklenburg apply to charter schools. That could provide a basis for follow-up on the reasons why.
Green said “it would be interesting” to be able to segregate data to show whether parents are looking for a particular type of education offered by a specific school, or just seeking an alternative to traditional public schools and applying to multiple charter schools.
Indeed, Halstead said, “We’ve been applying to all the charter schools within 20 miles” in an attempt to get her daughter into a charter school setting. That included Community School of Davidson, Pine Lake Preparatory in Mooresville, Mountain Island Charter in Mount Holly, Lincoln Charter School in Denver, and Corvian Community School in Huntersville.
“It’s kind of bittersweet to have the lottery because you disappoint so many people,” Green said. “We had our lottery a couple of weeks ago. We had over 3,400 applicants. We just had kindergarten openings, so we admitted 25 kindergartners.”
Green said a parent who attended a past open house at his school decided to launch Corvian Community School, one of the state’s nine new charters.
“They’re basing their school on our model and they’ve hired one of our teachers as a consultant,” Green said. “It’s refreshing as an administrator to be able to say, ‘You can’t get into our school and we’re sorry, but here’s another school where you may want to go because we know who they are and what they do.’ ”
Allison’s organization used last year’s state data to roughly carve the state into three regions. Community School of Davidson is in the western region.
“They have 37 charter schools in that region, and when you add up the numbers of families on waiting lists that’s close to 15,000,” he said.
The eastern region has 23 charter schools with 1,500 students on waiting lists. There are 40 charters in the central region with “close to 12,000” on waiting lists, Allison said.
Dan Way is an contributor to Carolina Journal.