South Mecklenburg High School students board their school bus for the first day of school on Bevington Place in southeast Charlotte in 2016. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com
South Mecklenburg High School students board their school bus for the first day of school on Bevington Place in southeast Charlotte in 2016. Davie Hinshaw dhinshaw@charlotteobserver.com

Living Here Guide

Don’t know where to start with local schools? Here’s your primer

August 11, 2017 02:10 PM

For every newcomer with children, the burning question is how to find a good school in the Charlotte area.

There are a couple of shortcuts that most – especially the more affluent new arrivals – will quickly hear about.

Some believe private schools offer the best education. There are plenty here, from the Big Three (Charlotte Country Day School, Charlotte Latin and Providence Day), with tuition topping $20,000 a year, to an array of religious and independent schools that offer different themes and more affordable rates.

Some will say if you want to attend public schools, move to the northern or southern suburbs of Mecklenburg County, where average test scores tend to be high and poverty levels low. But those shortcuts are like going to a new restaurant and ordering only the most popular item: It probably won’t be bad, but you’ll miss a lot.

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Mecklenburg and the surrounding counties offer a rich menu of school options. It takes some work to sort through them, but if you do you’ll discover delightful schools and neighborhoods you might have missed otherwise.

First, here’s a quick primer on the education scene:

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools is a countywide district that serves about three-quarters of the county’s school-age kids. Students are assigned to nearby schools based on their home address, but families can also request CMS options that range from Montessori magnets to classes taught in Japanese to small high schools on college campuses.

• Jargon tip: When CMS staff talk about “home schools” they mean the schools that have neighborhood attendance zones. That’s not to be confused with families who teach their kids at home; they’re a relatively small but growing part of the scene.

• Charter schools are tuition-free public schools that are authorized by the state and governed by independent nonprofit boards, though many are run by for-profit chains. They’re the fastest growing segment of the public education scene in Charlotte and across the state, with about 30 schools in Mecklenburg County and several others just across county lines. Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, can enroll students across county boundaries.

• About 10 percent of Mecklenburg’s students attend private schools, a number that’s been fairly flat for years.

Now that you’ve got the basics, here are five tips that will help you understand Charlotte and navigate a school search. See the accompanying box for links and resources.

1. School competition is fierce.

CMS is expanding its magnet program. New charter schools are opening and old ones are growing. The benefits are obvious: Families have ever-better chances of finding an innovative program that fits their needs no matter where they live.

The downside: You have to be smart about separating marketing from reality. If a school is touting extensive offerings – especially if it’s small and/or new – ask pointed questions to see if these programs are an aspiration or a fact. Talk to families who have children at the school, and look for social media forums where you can get an unfiltered view. Visit the school – not just for an after-hours tour but during a regular school day. If you’re concerned about crowding or behavior, try to be there for lunch, class change or dismissal.

The competition creates long waiting lists and unpredictable enrollment. Because families don’t have to pay deposits when they apply at magnet and charter schools, many put their kids into several lotteries, deciding at the last minute where their child will actually go. That can be good for families who land on the waiting list, which may clear quickly after school starts, but challenging for schools that discover their enrollment is lower than they’d expected.

2. School letter grades may not mean what you think.

All public schools (district and charter) get an A-F letter grade from the state. The grades are based on student performance on state reading, math and science exams, with graduation rates thrown in for high schools.

An “A” identifies a school where most students excel on testing – probably one that has selective admission and/or is located in an affluent part of town.

An “F” suggests that school caters to some of the most disadvantaged students, either by design or location.

Neither grade tells you whether the teachers are any good, or how well that school will match your child’s needs and interests. Many highly regarded schools fall somewhere in the middle.

North Carolina’s school report card site offers a lot of data, not only on test scores but on class size, teacher credentials, safety, attendance and digital access. Numbers are a great place to start, or to fact-check your first impression. They’ll help you ask smart questions, but they’re unlikely to provide all the answers.

A number of private websites also offer school data and ratings. They can be a good start, but double-check all information as it can be outdated or misleading.

Private schools don’t participate in state accountability reporting. Schools choose which tests to give and what data they’ll release.

3. Instability is real, but you can prepare.

Critics’ rap on CMS is that assignments are always changing. There’s some truth to that, but there’s more certainty now than there has been in recent years.

The district recently concluded a two-year review of student assignment that led to upcoming boundary changes for fewer than 10 percent of students. That means most neighborhoods and schools you consider aren’t slated for change, but some are, and you need to know what’s coming before you make long-term housing decisions. Here’s how to find out:

• Start by looking up current schools at the CMS website, www.cms.k12.nc.us; click Student Placement at the top of the page. You can find 2017-18 neighborhood schools and magnet options for any address.

• A number of CMS changes, some of them significant, take effect in 2018-19. They include changes in boundaries, grade levels and programs. You can look up the school-by-school changes on the CMS site, though they may be confusing to newcomers. You can also sign up for CMSlistens.org, a new district communication effort to keep families posted on change.

Finally, you can email student.placement@cms.k12.nc.us or call 980-343-5335 to verify or clarify what you’ve learned.

Be aware that there’s potential instability with charter schools as well; a handful have been forced to close in recent years. If you’re considering that option, ask the school and/or the state Office of Charter Schools whether there are any financial warnings or other actions in place.

Bottom line: The Charlotte region is growing and changing, and if your children attend school here for 13 years, you’re likely to encounter some surprises. But CMS isn’t due for a major assignment review for another six years, so things are relatively stable now.

4. North Carolina has vouchers, but newcomers may not qualify immediately.

The Opportunity Scholarship program (ncseaa.edu/osg.htm) offers up to $4,200 a year to help cover private-school tuition for low- to moderate-income families (there are also scholarships for students with disabilities). But if you’re moving from out of state, your kids may not qualify right away.

Students who are going into kindergarten or first grade are eligible if their families meet the income guidelines, but older students must have attended a North Carolina public school the previous spring semester. Applications are closed for 2017-18, which means if you plan to apply for the following year you may need to enroll in a public school first.

The scholarships will cover all or most of the bill at some schools, but others charge far more. Ask about financial aid at those schools. The Children’s Scholarship Fund-Charlotte also offers some private assistance to help low-income students attend private schools.

5. Grade levels are a bit controversial here.

The structure at most public schools in the Charlotte area is K-5 elementary schools, 6-8 middle schools and 9-12 high schools. But combined grade levels are popular at many charter and magnet schools, and recently CMS has created some K-8 neighborhood schools.

Fans of the combined grade levels say it eliminates the transition that can sidetrack a student and creates a smaller, more personalized setting for adolescents in the difficult middle school years.

Critics note that because combined schools tend to have smaller groups in each grade level, they may offer fewer elective classes and extracurricular clubs than a full-size middle or high school. And you may end up with students ages 5 to 14 (younger for the schools that include prekindergarten) riding school buses together, which worries many parents.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education since 2002. Reach her at: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

Contacts and resources

North Carolina school report cards: www.ncpublicschools.org/src/

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools: www.k12.nc.us. Look for front-page links to student placement and the 2017-18 student assignment review. Call 980-343-5335 for student placement information.

North Carolina Office of Charter Schools: www.ncpublicschools.org/charterschools/ for a school directory and details on charter applications. Phone: 919-807-3491.

North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education: https://ncadmin.nc.gov/about-doa/divisions/division-non-public-education For information about private schools and home-schooling.

Opportunity Scholarship program: www.ncseaa.edu/osg.htm, OpportunityScholarships@ncseaa.edu or 855-330-3955.

Children’s Scholarship Fund-Charlotte: http://csfcharlotte.org/ or 704-973-4583.

NC Schools Around Me: www.ncschoolsaroundme.com. Created by the school choice advocacy group Parents for Educational Freedom in North Carolina to help families locate public, private and charter schools near their address.