Charter schools are supposed to provide additional public school options for families, but they could become less attractive under Wake County's new student assignment plan.
Charter school supporters say the new plan unfairly puts charter school students further back in the line if they choose to return to a traditional public school, a choice many make when it comes time to attend high school. Charter school parents and students say that the new plan could discourage some families from applying to charter schools in lower grades if they think it will make it harder for them to later attend schools in the district.
Some charter school students are pulling out of their schools in the middle of the year in order to get on the path - or what the new plan calls a "feeder pattern" - that leads to the traditional school they eventually want to attend.
Until last week, Ellie Buckner was a student at Exploris Middle School, a charter school in downtown Raleigh. On Wednesday, she enrolled at Daniels Middle School, located near Cameron Village in Raleigh, to lock in a seat at Broughton High School. She was concerned that the assignment plan could have resulted in her going to a different high school because it gives priority to Broughton for students from Daniels over those from charter schools.
"It seems just because I chose to attend a charter school before the new plan was approved that I'm being treated differently, as though I'm not as important as the kids in traditional schools," Ellie said.
The plan was approved in October back when Republicans, who have historically been more supportive of charter schools than Democrats, still had the majority on the school board. Republican school board member John Tedesco said the charter school families will in many cases still be able to get the seats they want.
"What you're hearing from families is the fear of the unknown," Tedesco said.
More than 5,000 students attend charter schools in Wake County, compared to 146,000 in traditional public schools. Charter schools get public money but are independent of the school systems they're located in.
Many of Wake's charter schools don't offer high school grades. This means families are looking to return to the school district for middle school or high school. Parents at Wake's charter schools are trying to find out how the new assignment plan affects them.
"Parents are confused," said Mary Griffin, administrator of Magellan Charter School in North Raleigh. "It's been hard to get information."
Kevin Piacenza, the director of Exploris, said he has been fielding questions from parents of eighth-graders all week.
"I'm trying to be supportive," he said. "There's not a lot that I can do right now."
Treated like newcomers
Some charter school parents say the information they've found about the new plan is unsettling. Their main concern is the plan's use of feeder patterns that designate a guaranteed middle school and high school seat for every elementary school student.
Under the plan, students in the feeder pattern are placed first, then their siblings. Remaining seats are filled by newcomers, such as charter school students, and current students who want to leave their feeder pattern.
Charter school parents are complaining that there appears to be few seats available for students who aren't from the feeder pattern. This goes against the expectation of families who thought that under Wake's old assignment plan they'd be able to leave the charter school one day and go to a specific school based on their address.
James Overman, head of the school system's student assignment task force, said they weren't trying to hurt charter school students. He said the goal was to try to find a balance between accommodating students already enrolled in the district and accommodating newcomers.
"I don't think we were unfair to any group," Overman said.
But several students and parents from Exploris showed up at last week's school board meeting to complain about the plan.
"I deserve the same opportunities and choices as someone who has been at a Wake County middle school, but I am being treated differently because I am in a charter school now," said Annie Bennett, an eighth-grader at Exploris.
Robert Meeks, an Exploris parent, charged that school officials were pitting charter vs. non-charter school students.
"Treating publicly funded charter students as if they had arrived from another area arises from a notion that this is a warfare way to keep seats open for children from your somewhat arbitrarily defined feeder schools and thus reduce the number of potential complaints when you drop this plan on the community in the next couple of months," Meeks said.
Tedesco and Superintendent Tony Tata tried to downplay the concerns. Tedesco said that nearly all the high schools have few open seats, so school officials will have to be flexible about taking in more students than the numbers indicate.
Tata said more seats will open up at the schools once students choose to leave their feeder pattern.
Those who switch now
But some families weren't going to stake their high school assignment for this fall on this reassurance.
Nathan Davis pulled out of Exploris last week to enroll in Apex Middle School, which will feed into Apex High School. His father, Mike Davis, said it was a hard decision to make but one Nathan felt was necessary to ensure he'd get into Apex High.
But it's unlikely that other charter school students can use that same option. Friday was officially the last day that new students could enroll to keep the current feeder pattern. Ellie Buckner, the Exploris student, made the move this week, but her mother, Gerri Miller, said she got an exemption from Tata.
"It's a tough decision for a 13-year-old to leave his classmates and friends behind," Mike Davis said.