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Not diverse enough? One of NC’s oldest charter schools wants more low-income students.

The Exploris School is one of North Carolina’s oldest and most popular charter schools, yet leaders of the downtown Raleigh school say they have a problem.

They are concerned that their largely white and affluent student population lacks racial and socioeconomic diversity, especially when compared to traditional public schools in Wake County. So now school leaders want to become one of a handful of charter schools in the state to give admissions priority to applicants from economically disadvantaged families.

The State Board of Education approved Exploris’ request on Oct. 4 at a time when there’s an ongoing statewide and national debate about whether charter schools have a negative impact on diversity in the nation’s public schools.

“Research demonstrates that charter schools can contribute to school segregation if they do not take active steps to address diversity and reduce barriers to access for students of all backgrounds,” Ellie Schollmeyer, executive director of Exploris, and Tom MIller, chairman of the school’s board of directors, wrote in a letter to the state board requesting approval of the change.

“A diverse student body positively impacts all students, increasing their cognitive, social, and emotional skills while preparing them to be engaged citizens in our increasingly diverse society.”

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from many of the rules that traditional public schools must follow. There are now 185 charter schools statewide.

Supporters of charter schools promote how they provide greater educational choice for families.

“Segregation is an issue that deserves to be examined in every public school situation,” said Rhonda Dillingham, executive director of the N.C. Association For Public Charter Schools. “But to look at the bigger picture, we need to consider the fact that lots of kids are stuck in failing schools and charter schools as a school choice option helps to alleviate that situation.”

But critics point to statistics such as how charter schools are whiter and more affluent than the state’s traditional public schools. White students make up 56 percent of the enrollment at charter schools compared to 49 percent at traditional public schools.

Economically disadvantaged students make up 31 percent of the enrollment at charter schools and 50 percent at traditional public schools.

Part of the reason for the gap is that charter schools are not required to provide school lunches or transportation. Some charter schools, mainly those that serve large concentrations of low-income students, provide meals and bus service but the majority do not.

“I applaud Exploris’ focus and effort on making the school more representative,” said Keith Poston, president and executive director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina. “I’m always going to support more efforts to make charter schools and all of our schools less segregated and less exclusive and less divided by economics. It’s a greater problem in the charter school sector.”

Under state law, charter schools are required to randomly accept any students who apply, with a lottery used if there are more applicants than seats. But the state also allows charter schools to give preference to applicants from low-income families.

Exploris is the fifth charter school in the state to use a “weighted lottery” to give priority to economically disadvantaged students. Central Park School For Children in Durham became the first charter school to use this process in 2013.

Central Park’s student enrollment has gone from being 70 percent white and 6 percent receiving federally subsidized school lunches to 53 percent white and 31 percent receiving subsidized meals, according to John Heffernan, the school’s director.

Central Park’s goal is to get to 40 percent of students receiving subsidized meals, which would move it closer to the 63 percent average for the Durham Public School System.

“We’re making an effort to represent our Durham local community, and our families understand the value of that,” Heffernan said. “We’re putting measures in place so charter schools are not part of segregating students by class.”

But recruiting more disadvantaged students is just the first step, according to Heffernan. In addition to offering meals and bus service, he said Central Park is providing financial assistance to participate in after-school programs and other school activities.

Heffernan said the school also recognized that students from economically disadvantaged homes may have different mental health and physical needs. So the school recently received a state grant to hire a full-time school nurse and to add a therapeutic social worker.

Leaders at other charter schools, including Exploris, have reached out to Heffernan to find out more about its diversity efforts.

Exploris was among the first group of 34 charter schools that opened in North Carolina in 1997. Initially offering only middle school, Exploris opened in the same building as Exploris children’s museum, which is now the site of Marbles Kids Museum.

Exploris diversity
Wilkins Swiger, center, leads a discussion with other Exploris Middle School students in this 2011 file photo. Leaders of The Exploris School want to make student enrollment at the K-8 charter school in Raleigh, N.C., more racially and socioeconomically diverse. News & Observer file photo

Exploris moved the middle school to Hillsborough Street and later opened an elementary school on Swain Street. The school plans to consolidate both campuses when it moves into a new 10-story building in downtown Raleigh that will be built at 120 Kindley St., near the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts.

Exploris has grown from 53 students in 1997 to 455 this year and has an annual waiting list of more than 1,000 students who were unable to get in during the admissions lottery, according to Schollmeyer, the school’s executive director.

But for a school whose mission is to provide students with a global education, Schollmeyer said Exploris has been concerned about the significant gap in racial and economic diversity between it and the Wake County school system.

The enrollment at Exploris is 75 percent white and 10 percent are low income Last school year, the Wake school system was 46 percent white and 33 percent low income.

“They’ve got a lot of room to make their school more reflective of the community as a whole,” said Kris Nordstrom, education finance and policy consultant for the N.C. Justice Center’s Education and Law Project. “Wake County is one where the charter community actually contributes to the level of racial segregation in Wake County.

“The existence of charter schools make it a slightly more racially segregated district than it would normally be.”

Nordstrom released a report in March that included a controversial recommendation to close charter schools that aren’t meeting integration goals.

Schollmeyer said leaders at Exploris have been studying since 2014 how to make the school more diverse. Exploris has the goal of more than doubling its current percentage of students receiving subsidized lunches to 25 percent by 2023.

“Our goal is to have the school reflect the racial and economic diversity of our community,” Schollmeyer said.

Once they find out how many new low-income students they’ll have, Schollmeyer said the school will finalize details on what additional services to provide next school year.

Alex Quigley, chairman of the N.C. Charter Schools Advisory Board, which is recommending that the state board approve Exploris’ request, applauded the school’s plan. Quigley, who is also executive director of Healthy Start Academy, a high-poverty charter school in Durham, said he expects more charter schools to use weighted lotteries as they become more familiar with the process.

But Quigley also said that charter schools shouldn’t get solely blamed for the lack of school diversity. He pointed to how school districts such as Wake County, which had been nationally known for its efforts to promote diversity, have scaled back efforts in recent years.

“Schools across the state are wrestling with how do we serve all kids,” Quigley said. “I’m excited that some charter schools are taking this on to diversify their school populations.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui
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