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An in-depth look at our region's emerging economic, social, political and cultural identity.

CMS Official Discusses Charter Competition And Other Trends In Enrollment Slump

Whitewater Middle opened a computer coding magnet and saw an enrollment surge, CMS says.

Competition with charter schools may have played a role in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ enrollment slump this year, a district official says. But while some schools came in under projections, some are growing fast. 

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools had expected to grow by a couple of hundred students this year. Instead, numbers released this week show the district shrunk by 465 kids.

Akeshia Craven-Howell, the associate superintendent in charge of tracking enrollment, says one cause is easy to spot.

"We have three new charters open in Mecklenburg County this school year: Two K-8s in the Steele Creek area and one K-8 in Huntersville," she said.

Ever since North Carolina lifted its cap on charter schools in 2011, the state has seen more students choose the independent public schools. Meanwhile, many districts have seen enrollment decline or flatten.

The loss of 465 kids in a district as big as CMS isn’t a crisis – that’s less than half a percent of this year’s 146,887 students. But that loss isn’t spread evenly across the county, and a school that comes in well below projections can end up losing teachers.

Akeshia Craven-Howell, CMS associate superintendent for student assignment

Craven-Howell says her staff is zooming in to tease out causes. Some elementary schools in the fast-growing Steele Creek area of southwest Charlotte came in low, likely because of the new charter schools, she says.

"Another analysis that we’ll be taking a look at in the next couple of weeks," she said, "is to the extent that some of our home schools lost enrollment, are these students that are going into our magnet schools or are they no longer in the district?"

“Home school” is CMS language for a school that has attendance boundaries, often called neighborhood schools. CMS has been increasing its opt-in magnet programs, some of which are located in neighborhood schools

For instance, Whitewater and Northridge middle schools added computer science magnet programs last year. Both saw larger-than-expected growth this year, says Craven-Howell.

In west Charlotte, Craven-Howell says Bruns Avenue Elementary and Thomasboro Academy drew more students than expected. 

"We also continue to see growth in south Charlotte, in our high schools in particular," she said. "We saw significant growth in the ninth grade at Myers Park and South Mecklenburg high schools."

Myers Park High had almost 3,600 students when the official count was taken on the 20th day of school. Last year, it was North Carolina’s largest school, and it’s added 178 students since then.

South Meck and Ardrey Kell also topped 3,000 students last year, and grew again this year.

In some cases, CMS adjusts school boundaries to address crowding, but that only works if there’s an underfilled school nearby. In south Charlotte that’s not an option because all the neighborhood schools are packed, Craven-Howell says.

"Fortunately, in south Charlotte we’ve got multiple new schools opening," she said. "The 2017 bond project has an elementary school and a high school. The 2013 bond had a K-8 school."

The school-by-school numbers will almost certainly be scrutinized by families, taxpayers and elected officials – all of them concerned about where schools are booming, where they’re declining and whether CMS can keep up with the trends.

Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.