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Lake Norman Charter School in high demand

More parents are trying to get their kids into Lake Norman Charter School in north Mecklenburg county. In planning for next year's enrollment, Lake Norman which is adding another year to its brand new high school, saw its largest pool of applicants. Making it to this public school, which feels more like a private school, is based on luck of the draw. WFAE's Simone Orendain visited the school to find out why parents want to get their kids in so badly. It's lottery day. Parents crowd into the cafeteria, anxiety written on their faces as the schools' managing director Tim Riemer explains how it will work. "You take a look at 5th grade obviously we have no returning students because that is the first grade here at Lake Norman Charter School. We will accept 89 siblings, 98 other 5th grade applicants for a total of 187," he says. Five hundred forty-four students are vying for those 98 slots. "The next step for us will be to run the lottery for you," says Riemer. Names are called. Then parents begin to trickle out of the cafeteria some with their heads held high, beaming and others crestfallen. Vicky Seksinsky mans the doors. She's the PTO president. She says, "I did not come for the lottery. I didn't want to put myself through that. Yeah, it's too much- screaming, crying. There's a lot of emotion. It means a lot It means you don't have to go to CMS." Seksinsky says CMS is too big and not academically challenging. This is a typical complaint of parents looking to place their children in Lake Norman. A charter school is a deregulated public school, often started by a group of parents who've been disgruntled by a school district. At Lake Norman, there's a middle school and a high school. Reimer says the board is made up of the students' parents. "We'd like to think it's a family environment that we have here. I think you get a higher level of buy-in when people are just emotionally and personally invested into your culture. That's the great thing about Lake Norman Charter School," he says. CMS administrators are well aware of charter supporters' complaints. Scott McCully is director of student placement at CMS. He says the district has a strong reputation nationally and administrators continue to work on making it competitive. But he says, "Overcrowding has been an issue particularly at the middle school level. And some parents are very uncomfortable with that... that's something we've been working very hard on in terms of bringing new schools on board." Parent Toni Hanline has two daughters at Lake Norman and one at North Mecklenburg High School. She's not disappointed that her oldest daughter couldn't get in. Hanline explains, "We didn't have any particular problems. I was born and raised in Charlotte and came through CMS. I graduated high school from there and went on to college and to become a respectable citizen." She saw Lake Norman as an opportunity to get her kinds into a private school setting without the tuition. Last year, Hanline started substitute teaching at the middle school and realized her good fortune. "The gym- the whole facility is really top notch. And I was impressed with the teachers' lesson plans that they left for me. They were very well prepared. I just felt really, really grateful that my kids went there," she says. Managing Director Tim Riemer says the school has a history of high standards. All teachers have plenty of autonomy. "You know, we do want our teachers to take risks- calculated risks. We also understand at times they're going to fail. But that's okay as long as it's well-thought out and well planned. Because I think taking risks allows people to grow," says Riemer. While charter schools stand-alone, they are publicly funded mostly by the state. There are 11 charter schools in Mecklenburg. And as critical as Lake Norman parents are of CMS, their schools actually receive a piece of the $10 million or so CMS must give to charters. Charter schools' performance is measured by state standards. Lake Norman's website says more than 90-percent of students have scored at or above grade level since the 01-02 school year. "It's one of the ones that we named as one of the top 10 charter schools," says Ran Coble, head of the North Carolina Public Policy Research Center. Overall, the center gives charter schools a mixed review- both academically and in how they reflect their communities. Riemer acknowledges Lake Norman's racial make-up could use some help. Students there are 88-percent white. "As far as diversity, we're probably just a little bit less diverse than our local community- the Huntersville community," he says. It's public school but it doesn't have public school services. Students have to bring their own lunch. And there is no school bus service. Parents like Toni Hanline run carpools. She's picking up her 14-year old daughter Maddie and a neighbor from the high school. Hanline says, "You have to be willing to apply, find out when to apply. And then you have to go through the lottery system and you have to be able to provide for your child's transportation so everybody who's here is at least that dedicated before they ever become a student." Maddie hops in the van with her friend Gillian and give a report on how her day went. Maddie likes the one-on-one attention from her teachers. But she complains, the school is so new that there isn't a strong sense of spirit. She's contemplating transferring to her older sister's school, North Meck, which she calls a "normal high school." Her mom hopes she sticks it out. "But we knew that once you walk away from here, you're kind of closing a door that might not open back up for you," says Hanline. If Maddie decides to leave, someone else will be eager to take that spot.