Rise of charter schools: Some say they offer stability, safety from reassignment

We will go, we will go, to first grade here we come

Kindergarten students at the Triangle Math & Science Academy in Cary, NC, celebrated their graduation to first grade at the school Wednesday, May 31, 2017.
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Kindergarten students at the Triangle Math & Science Academy in Cary, NC, celebrated their graduation to first grade at the school Wednesday, May 31, 2017.

More than 4,700 new Wake County students are expected to attend public schools this fall – but the majority of those newcomers will likely go to charter schools.

Charter school enrollment is rising statewide, but particularly in Wake, where the number of charter students has doubled since state lawmakers eliminated the limit on charter schools in 2011. The growth has been particularly strong in western and southwestern Wake, where charter schools are promoting how they can provide stability at a time when growth is causing the county school system to reassign students each year.

“We don’t reassign students,” said Steve Pond, principal of the new Peak Charter Academy opening in August in Apex. “You can be domiciled anywhere in North Carolina and can attend if you drive to here. It brings stability to the home life.”

In addition to Peak Charter, Pine Springs Preparatory Academy is opening in September in Holly Springs. The combination of the two new charter schools and growth at existing schools has caused county planners to project there will be 2,535 more charter students this fall compared with 2,208 in the school system.

There could be as many as 13,349 Wake charter school students this fall compared with 161,757 in the school system.

Charter schools are taxpayer-funded public schools that are exempt from some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.

“Charter schools are doing great in this area,” said Syleswaran Sukumaran, a Cary father whose two children attend Triangle Math and Science Academy in Cary. “We thought we’d try a charter school.”

Rishe Syleswaran is hugged by his father Syleswaran Sukumaran after a kindergarten graduation ceremony at the Triangle Math and Science Academy in Cary Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Ethan Hyman

The growth in charter schools, home schools and private schools is increasing competition for the Wake school system. Final numbers aren’t in yet for this school year, but the percentage of Wake students attending the school district could drop under 80 percent for the first time.

2,535Projected number of additional charter school students in Wake County this fall

2,208Projected number of additional students in the Wake County Public School System

“I don’t like to see us losing our market share, especially because we don’t know all the reasons why,” said Wake school board Chairwoman Monika Johnson-Hostler. “My job every day is to make sure we’re creating the best public school system possible.”

The growth of charter schools is having a financial impact, accounting for $6.8 million of the Wake school board’s requested $45.2 million increase in local funding.

The school district turns over money to charter schools based on the number of students they have who live in Wake. The amount could rise to $32.2 million in local dollars this fall.

But Gregg Sinders, a member of the board of directors of Pine Springs Prep, said it’s a huge savings for taxpayers that 40,000 Wake students attend charter schools, home schools and private schools. The alternative, he said, would be the county having to build more schools to house those students.

“We didn’t get into this because we felt the Wake County school system wasn’t doing a good job,” Sinders said. “We got into this because we’re in one of the fastest-growing towns in the state and the district was having a hard time keeping up.”

Before the state cap was lifted, most charter schools in Wake were in Raleigh. Since then, several new charter schools have opened or relocated to Apex, Cary and Holly Springs.

The trend will continue with Carolina Charter Academy, which received approval Thursday from the State Board of Education to open in 2018 in Fuquay-Varina. Several rejected charter schools that wanted to open in western Wake are expected to resubmit applications.

Parents are looking for another option.

Lauren Watters, elementary school dean of Triangle Math and Science

Charter officials say the demand is high. School officials reported as many as 1,000 applications this year at Pine Springs Prep, 1,900 at Peak Charter and 2,500 at Triangle Math and Science. All three schools have long waiting lists.

“We are a school of choice,” said Lauren Watters, elementary school dean of Triangle Math and Science, which is planning to expand its enrollment by 50 percent to 1,200 students this fall. “Parents are looking for another option.”

Annabel Cross gets help from teacher's assistant Lisa Kidder before the kindergarten graduation ceremony at Triangle Math and Science Academy in Cary, Wednesday, May 31, 2017. Ethan Hyman

Western Wake is particularly appealing since, on average, students are higher performing and more affluent than the rest of the county.

“This area is such a top-performing part of Wake County,” said Pond, principal of Peak Charter. “To have over 1,900 families want to give their important prize possession – their child – and their care of them to us is quite humbling.”

A marketing pitch for the charter schools is that they’ll give stability to families for years. Many charter schools run from kindergarten through eighth grade. Some schools also offer high school.

“One thing parents are looking for is stability,” said Sinders of Pine Springs Prep. “Once you’re in, you’re always in. We guarantee no redistricting.”

Rafia Lodhi lives within walking distance of Sycamore Creek Elementary School in northwest Raleigh, a high-performing school. But she gave it up to drive her children 20 minutes to Triangle Math and Science, near the U.S. 64 exit on U.S. 1.

“One place, one drop-off, three kids for 12 years,” said Lodhi. “We’re here to the end.”

In addition to stability, charter officials say families like that their schools are smaller overall than traditional public schools so they’re more responsive to parents.

While some students leave the school system for charter schools, many eventually return, according to Johnson-Hostler, the school board chairwoman. She said families who stick with the district will get the best choices and academic offerings to help students succeed.

But Johnson-Hostler said reassignment remains a fact of life.

“We are never going to promise people we won’t reassign you,” she said. “We’re a growing county.”

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