More NC charters on deck as enrollment in existing schools falls short

Third-grader Autumn Lynch, left, and second-grader Riley Dunnam measure their ecosystem soda bottle before cutting it in half in biotech science teacher Valerie Chambers’ science class at Durham’s Reaching All Minds Academy charter school on Dec. 15.
Third-grader Autumn Lynch, left, and second-grader Riley Dunnam measure their ecosystem soda bottle before cutting it in half in biotech science teacher Valerie Chambers’ science class at Durham’s Reaching All Minds Academy charter school on Dec. 15.

The State Board of Education is being asked to allow 11 charter schools to open next year even as the state fell short of its overall charter school enrollment projections and some charters are struggling to succeed.

North Carolina has seen rapid growth in charter schools the past two years. Charters opened at a swift pace after the state legislature broke the cap of 100 in 2011, saying there was growing demand for the schools. Charters are public schools but operate under an independent board and typically offer smaller class sizes and special programs.

The State Board approved 23 charters to open in 2013, and an additional 26 for 2014. However, some never got started or shut down quickly because of low enrollment.

Charlotte, which has been a charter school boom town, has also experienced some of the biggest growing pains. A STEM high school did not open as planned this fall because not enough students enrolled while another closed after a month because of too few students.

Enrollment success at charters in Wake and Durham counties has varied. Some new schools had more students in the first month than they anticipated, while others came in below target. But both counties have fewer charters than Mecklenburg, which has 22. Of the state’s 148 charters, 19 are in Wake and 11 in Durham County. And of the 11 new charters up for State Board approval next month, two are in Durham, one is in Wake, and one is in nearby Franklin County.

Eddie Goodall, executive director of the N.C. Public Charter Schools Association, an industry group that supports charters and advocates for them, rejected the idea that any region of the state has a charter-school surplus. “Not even close,” he said.

A signal that an area may have enough charters is “when parents quit demanding them,” Goodall said, and that hasn’t happened yet.

Missed projections

Reaching All Minds, a charter school in Durham focused on science, technology, engineering and mathematics for elementary school students, fell short of its projected enrollment of 144 when it opened this year. According to the state Department of Public Instruction, the school had 116 students attending the first month. Annie McKoy, chairwoman of the school’s board of trustees, attributed the shortfall to parents changing their minds about enrolling their children, but said the school added 20 students after the first-month count.

McKoy said she’s not worried about Reaching All Minds attracting students.

“There is great demand,” she said. “The children are learning. They enjoy being here.”

Charter schools are allowed to grow 20 percent each year without having to go to the state for approval. Some long-established charters failed to enroll as many students as they wanted this year.

Statewide, about 67,700 students were enrolled in charter schools for this school year. While that’s up from about 58,000 students last year, first-month enrollments this year were about 9,000 students short of the state’s projections, according to data from the state Department of Public Instruction.

Accurate enrollment projections are important because schools receive public money based on how many students attend, and schools use the projections to plan their spending.

The state sends its first funding allocation – based on the projection – a month or so before the school opens. Later allocations are adjusted downward if there are fewer students attending class.

No worries

Local charter school leaders say they are not worried about growth at their schools.

Global Scholars Academy in Durham hoped to enroll 200 students this fall, but ended up with 158 in the first month, according to the Department of Public Instruction. More than 180 students were enrolled in the school’s summer program, said Agatha Brown, co-head of school for business and finance. But some parents used Global Scholars for summer enrichment and sent their children to traditional public schools in fall.

“We don’t have any control over that,” she said.

Brown said Global Scholars, which opened as a charter school in 2011, is so different from others – school starts at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 6 p.m., and has activities such as robotics, coding and sports analytics – there’s not much worry about competition from more charters. The challenge is getting the word out about Global Scholars, she said.

“People still come in and ask, ‘How much is tuition?’ ” Brown said, underscoring what some say is a problem for charters; some parents are confused about what charters are and how they operate.

Last summer, Southern Wake Academy’s then-director was predicting fall enrollment of 330. The academy told DPI it wanted even more students, 343. It ended up having fewer than 310 in the first month.

The school, off N.C. 55 in Fuquay-Varina, opened in 2000 and enrolls middle and high school students. Mike Heavey, vice chairman of the academy’s board of directors, is confident the school will be able to fill seats; it is the only charter in southern Wake.

“I’m not scared that we’re not going to be at our numbers,” he said. “The middle school is going to grow like crazy.”

Fundraising challenges

Though they get public money, many charters worry constantly about fundraising. Heavey said he’d like a professional fundraiser to work for Southern Wake Academy so the school could afford to offer more elective courses and do more marketing.

“We are a school, but we are a business,” he said.

New charter applicants are asked to describe marketing plans for their schools. “Marketing to potential students and parents is vital to survival of charter schools,” the application says.

While charter schools operate free of some of the rules governing traditional public schools, they have challenges those schools don’t have, Goodall said, such as finding and paying for buildings in time to open in the fall. (Public money cannot be used to buy or build charter school buildings.) He attributed the enrollment struggles of the Charlotte-area charters to their difficulty in securing space early enough to notify parents of the schools’ locations.

“Schools don’t have a place – they don’t know where they’re going to be. People don’t apply,” Goodall said.

Joel Medley, director of the state Office of Charter Schools, said there’s no standard answer why new schools don’t meet their enrollment projections. Some are held back by parent concerns about buildings, he said. In some cases, parents who are interested in new schools may wait to see how they develop. And charters in urban districts may compete with each other and with local districts offering more variety and choices, he said.

There’s no research to show when an area hits its optimum number of charter school seats, Medley said.

Though Mecklenburg charters have been off-target, State Board of Education Chairman Bill Cobey said enrollment projections are generally on track.

Starting a school is hard, Cobey said. “It’s about as difficult a chore that you can get involved in,” he said. And there’s no telling why enrollment projections in Charlotte charters were off.

“Is that driven by more supply than demand, or driven by more options in their traditional system?” he asked. “I don’t know how to look at that.”