Friday kicks off the 2020 school choice season in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, as well as some charter schools in the region.
As options expand and competition intensifies, parents can find the scene a bit overwhelming.
"It’s just confusing to navigate what happens with the lottery, trying to get them into a program ... and if we don’t get them into a program where do we go from there?" said John Mielke of Huntersville.
He and his wife, Elena, brought their 1- and 4-year-old sons to uptown Charlotte for the CMS Choice Fair earlier this month. Elena Mielke said they have a good neighborhood school, but they're also checking out magnet and charter options for 4-year-old Jack.
They're interested in the CMS Montessori program, but learned that most of the kindergarten seats in those popular magnet schools were claimed by families who applied a year earlier. Montessori is the only CMS magnet that starts with prekindergarten, and those students have priority for seats as they advance.
Charlotte-area families have never had more choices for their children. Charter schools, which are run by independent boards, are proliferating. CMS and surrounding counties, such as Gaston and Iredell-Statesville, are expanding their magnet options to compete.
And yes, even though the first quarter of the current school year is barely over, it's time to get serious about applying for 2020-21. Open houses and information sessions ramped up in October, and Friday is the opening day to submit applications in CMS and charter schools such as Lake Norman and Pine Lake Prep.
Other districts and charter schools start the process later.
"They all have different time frames and processes, so it’s important that parents identify what areas they want to apply to and then educate themselves on how to not miss those windows," said Shannon Stein, superintendent of Lake Norman Charter School in Huntersville.
Magnet and charter schools do lotteries to decide who gets in when applications outstrip openings. Lake Norman's lottery is done live in February, with parents watching anxiously in person or online. Last year, Stein says, 6,000 children landed on the waiting list – a number that almost certainly includes students who are also on other magnet and charter waiting lists.
When CMS rolled out its system of neighborhood schools and magnets more than 15 years ago, the choice fair and application period were in January. Parents got their results in March.
Akeshia Craven-Howell, the assistant superintendent in charge of student assignment, says parents told CMS that was too late. Parents who were also considering private schools often had to put down a deposit by January or February, she said.
"Because they weren’t finding out about their CMS choices until much later they weren’t able to make the most informed choice," she said.
A decade ago there were only a handful of charter schools in the region, but they’ve expanded since the state lifted the 100-school cap in 2011. New schools have opened and some established ones have added grade levels.
This year Mecklenburg students are enrolled in 54 charter schools in Mecklenburg and surrounding counties. Unlike school districts, charter schools routinely take students across county lines.
Many private schools in the Charlotte area consider Oct. 1 the start of their application season – and that process often starts when children are 3 years old, shooting for transitional kindergarten as 4-year-olds. Unlike district and charter schools, private schools require a deposit from families who want to lock in a seat.
Despite the rise in free competition, Lisa Knight of Providence Day School says there’s no slump in demand. Providence Day is part of an association of six private schools, including some of Charlotte’s most expensive and selective ones.
"I think we would all agree that we’re seeing an uptick in applications, particularly among this younger demographic, and I think that is something that not every region of the country is seeing," Knight said.
CMS has seen overall enrollment flatten over the last three years, with a small slump this year. Magnet Director Walter Hall says the district decided to revive a tradition that had been dormant for the last few years: A districtwide event to showcase all the CMS options.
Hundreds of parents and kids streamed through the Wells Fargo atrium on Oct. 19 to check it out. CMS has responded to the competition by adding more options of its own. Sixty-seven of the district’s 175 schools will host magnet programs in 2020, including a new math/science/technology school opening in the Rea Farms area of south Charlotte. Other themes include foreign language immersion, arts, International Baccalaureate and college-based high schools.
For Northridge Middle School Principal Vincent Golden it was a chance to showcase a computer coding magnet program that was added last year.
"It’s really exciting to see this many parents out," Golden said. "I did not expect this many, but it’s great and we’re having the floodgates open here."
Niraj Bhatt brought his two daughters to the CMS choice fair. He was impressed to learn that his youngest could start learning Stephen Covey’s "The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People" in a leadership program that starts in kindergarten at Myers Park and Elizabeth traditional schools.
"I think the hardest thing is making up your mind," Bhatt said. "It’s like walking into a store and figuring out what to you want to order."
Elena Mielke says she'd advise other parents to start checking out schools even earlier than the fall before your child starts kindergarten.
"I feel like there’s a lot of research to do on the schools, a lot of options," she said. "Start talking to parents and neighbors and friends as much as you can about schools."
But parents who are just realizing it’s time to get serious about 2020 don't need to panic. The CMS magnet lottery is taking applications through Dec. 13, and it doesn’t matter how early you apply. In late December CMS will let families know whether their children got into the magnet schools they applied for.
There’s still plenty of time to apply for charter and private schools, too. And some other nearby districts open their magnet applications in January.
Families should check individual schools and districts for deadlines and details. Here are some starting points: