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The fastest growing charter schools in North Carolina: What we can learn
General Assembly should consider facilities grants in rural areas
North Carolina’s charter school boom shows no signs of slowing.
The state saw the fifth-highest charter school enrollment gain between the start of the 2019-20 school year and the end of the 2021-22 year, according to a new report from the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. North Carolina’s charter schools gained more than 14,000 students (12% growth) during that time period, while traditional public schools shed more than 48,000 (down 3%).
Only Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Arizona had larger enrollment increases in state charters. North Carolina’s growth was fueled primarily by students of color, with rapid a increase in the number of Hispanic students in particular.
This rise in North Carolina’s charter school enrollment is boosted by a steady stream of new charters, as well as rapid growth in a few of the state’s most popular campuses.
What are parents looking for in a charter school?
To attempt to answer this question, Longleaf Politics compiled data from the N.C. Department of Public Instruction to see which charter schools were growing the fastest. We looked at enrollment in the first month of the 2019-20 school year, and compared it with the first month of the 2022-23 school year. Here are the results.
Bonnie Cone Classical Academy (Huntersville): 271%
West Lake Preparatory Academy (Denver): 266%
Unity Classical Charter School (Steele Creek area, Charlotte): 203%
Discovery Charter School (Bahama, Durham County): 187%
Tillery Charter Academy (Biscoe, Montgomery County): 178%
Eastside STREAM Academy (East Charlotte): 161%
Community Public Charter (Stanley, Gaston County): 156%
Southwest Charlotte STEM Academy (Steele Creek area, Charlotte): 93%
Shining Rock Classical Academy: CFA (Haywood County): 91%
The Hawbridge School (Saxapahaw, Alamance County): 88%
There are also two schools worth highlighting that have opened since 2019 and grown to large numbers.
Wake Preparatory Academy (Wake Forest/Franklin County): 1,982 students
American Leadership Academy (Johnston County): 1,759 students
You can view the entire database here. This includes all North Carolina charter schools, ranked from fastest-growing to the school that lost the most students.
A few caveats: This list does not claim to show the “best” or most successful charter schools in North Carolina. It rewards newer schools with room to grow. There are a lot of excellent, successful charter schools with very little growth over the past three years, simply because they’re at full capacity and cannot take on more students.
However, examining the fastest-growing charter schools does provide a window into where there is unmet demand and suggests a model that potential new charter schools could consider.
Here are a few things we learned.
Management companies really help
Five of the fastest-growing charter schools, and both of the new charter giants, have engaged an educational management organization to help get their schools of the gorund. These companies handle much of the back-office operations of a charter school, assist with curriculum, provide start-up loans and can also help secure real estate. While it’s clearly not a requirement for success, partnering with a highly-rated EMO can help a charter school grow quickly.
Charter Schools USA and TeamCFA are two of the more popular ones. Charter One is involved in Wake Prep and the American Leadership Academy.
Parents want a new school building
Many charter schools lease temporary space in churches, shopping malls or vacant traditional public school buildings to help them save money while they get off the ground. Some end up spending years there. However, the list of fastest-growing charter schools indicates that parents want to see a nice, new school building before sending their children to a charter school. Nearly all of the fastest-growing schools either had new buildings when founded or moved into them within a year or two.
To fund these buildings, many of these schools are working with developers like SchoolDev East, which specializes in financing charter schools.
K-8 schools are popular
The fastest-growing schools nearly all serve children in grades K-8. In many cases, these schools start with a smaller number of grades, expanding into new grades as their students age up. Middle schools and high schools have a much harder time growing quickly, and K-12 schools can be an operational challenge.
Suburbs are hot — but so are rural areas
Many of the fastest-growing charter schools are in suburban areas in or near Charlotte and Raleigh. However, surprisingly, several of these schools are in rural areas like Biscoe and Haywood County. Another fast-growing school that didn’t quite make the list is in far-eastern Washington County. This shows that there’s clearly an unmet demand for school choice in all corners of the state.
Traditions are important
Often, it’s not enough simply to set up a charter school that copies a traditional public school model. Most of the fastest-growing charter schools have some sort of twist. Classical education is particularly popular, an old-school model that emphasizes the “great books,” natural sciences and fine arts.
Why all this matters
School choice is a 70/30 issue in North Carolina overwhelmingly popular among voters of all types, but that hasn’t stopped the attacks. Both traditional public school districts and the General Assembly should continued to be reminded that the future of education depends on different models and options for parents.
The General Assembly should also consider facilities grants for charter schools, particularly in rural areas. Many states already offer per-pupil funding or start-up grants for charter schools, but not North Carolina. Our state specifically excludes charter schools from state or county facility funding. Wide swaths of the state are still without a charter school option of all, and this could help encourage their development.
2 things of note
Remembering Betty McCain
Betty McCain, a giant in N.C. Democratic Party politics in the latter half of the 20th century passed away on the day before Thanksgiving at age 91. “Betty McCain was the most influential person in advocating for public schools and the University of North Carolina in recent history,” former Gov. Jim Hunt told the Wilson Times. “She was my ‘right hand’ during my four terms as governor, and I consider her one of our state’s greatest leaders ever.” The Wilson Times piece is well worth the read.
Add this to your reading list
If you’re into politics, and I imagine you are if you’re reading this newsletter, you’ll want to read “Falling Up: How a Redneck Helped Invent Political Consulting.” This fascinating memoir from former Democratic political consultant Raymond Strother shows how the field developed from old-school, sheriff-and-clerk politicking to the rise of mass media. It’s full of fascinating characters, too.
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