Home-Schooling Keeps Growing In Charlotte Region, As Virus Poses New Questions

Jul 9, 2020

Home-schooling has been growing steadily across North Carolina, especially in the Charlotte region. And early signs hint that those numbers could keep growing in the coming school year. 

More than 149,000 North Carolina students were home-schooled last year, according to a new state report posted last week. That’s up 5% over the previous year – and almost 40% over five years.

The state's annual reports show the one-year increases in Mecklenburg, Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston, Iredell and Union counties ranged from 7.7% to 11.4%. Over five years, all of those counties also topped the state growth rate, with rates ranging from 47% to almost 50% in Cabarrus, Catawba, Gaston and Iredell.

The latest numbers don’t include all the families who supervised remote learning when schools closed because of the coronavirus. As long as students are still enrolled in a district, charter or private school, families don’t have to register with the state as home-schoolers.

Uncertainty Ahead

The coming year is a huge question mark. One one hand, lots of parents learned just how tough it is to supervise their kids’ education from home, and can’t wait to send them back to school. On the other, there are parents like Beth Dozier Hessler.

"You know, we really struggle with sending our children into a dystopian school environment," Hessler says. 

Her daughter attended kindergarten at Shamrock Gardens Elementary last year, starting in person and finishing remotely. Hessler really wants to hold Evie Claire's place in a magnet program for gifted kids and have her return to public school -- eventually.

But she’s thinking the coming year should be a sort of gap year. There’s so much uncertainty as she gets ready for first grade.

North Carolina’s reopening plans remain in limbo just five weeks before the year begins. Gov. Roy Cooper said Thursday he plans to announce a decision next week, delayed from his initial July 1 deadline.

Two of the three paths Cooper has outlined involve students learning remotely for part of the year. Hessler says that's not ideal for young children.

"They’re tactile," she says. "They’re learning to write. They’re learning to put letter sounds together. They use their fingers to outline words."

Even if schools open at full capacity – and even if there are no COVID-19 surges that force schools to send kids home again – Hessler worries about the atmosphere.

"You’re going to have to fight fear with your kids," she says. "They’re not going to be encouraged to get up close to their friends, or maybe not go on the playground, or not have music class, or PE."

That has Hessler looking for alternatives.

"When you take that out of school, it’s just not an environment that I want my children in, and I know it’s not for a lot of parents, so I think you’re going to see a huge jump in home-schooling," she said in late June.

Numbers "Overwhelming"

She may be right. North Carolina’s Division of Non-Public Education opened registrations for home-schooling on July 1. The website crashed almost immediately, with a notice saying it was because of an “overwhelming” number of filings.

A spokeswoman for the division told WFAE the site was also disabled "while technical improvements were made," and did not provide the number of filings during the first few days.

The site now urges parents not to file a notice of intent to home-school until five days before that home-schooling begins. And it notes that remote learning through a public school is not home-schooling.

So the future of home-schooling is as uncertain as everything else in this pandemic year. 

A Coronavirus Alternative?

Hessler has an infant son and a work-from-home job. She says the one-on-one attention she gave Evie Claire during remote learning was great for her daughter, but exhausting for her.

So she and a couple of Plaza Midwood neighbors are exploring an alternative that’s being dubbed micro-schooling. They’re trying to hire a teacher to work with their kids – all ages 5 and 6 -- in their own homes and neighborhood. Hessler said they haven’t agreed on a salary, but the cost to each family will be "definitely more than preschool, less than private school. "

And she says the teacher would face much less exposure to the virus than in a traditional setting.

"We all have social-distanced together, and the agreement would of course be that we keep being responsible in that realm," she says.

Her ideal would be for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to let the kids remain on the books as Shamrock Gardens students, letting them keep their magnet seats while actually doing hands-on, in-person learning with their own teacher. CMS has said it will offer all parents a remote-learning option, but it’s not clear that an arrangement like that would be allowed.

School Choice Trends 

Even before the virus shook things up, Mecklenburg was showing steady trends in school choice. Enrollment in CMS and private schools has been flat or shrinking slightly for several years. The new home-school and private-school tallies for last year show CMS had 74% of all Mecklenburg students – a solid majority, but the first time the district has fallen below three-quarters.

Even with the steady growth, home-schooled kids account for less than 6% of Mecklenburg students. Charter schools, which have grown rapidly for several years, claim almost 11%, with about 9% in private schools.

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