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NC school enrollment trends raise big questions about the future

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

School choice is alive and well in North Carolina, my recent look at 15 years of enrollment data shows. Private, charter and home-schooling continue to grow after the pandemic-disrupted 2020-21 school year, while school districts serve a large but shrinking share of the school-age population.

What does it all mean? On the plus side, it’s great for families to have options. All of these choices can provide kids with a great education, just as all can fall short. We have an abundance of information about student performance, teacher credentials and disciplinary measures at district and charter schools, which are publicly funded (new data will be out in September). Private schools and home-schooling families don’t have to report any of that, even though a growing number of private schools receive public subsidies.

On the worrisome side, if traditional public schools become a refuge of last resort, serving only the neediest students in all or parts of North Carolina, that will impact business recruitment, property values, civic life and equitable opportunity. As we discussed on Friday’s Charlotte Talks news roundup, the changes are playing out as state lawmakers prepare to dramatically increase spending for private-school vouchers, as Charlotte-Mecklenburg leaders try to win voter approval for a record $2.5 billion bond and as a “don’t trust government schools” drumbeat grows across the country.

Speaking of CMS, its share of Mecklenburg students is well below the state average. Based on the new home and private school data, CMS enrolled 71.1% of the county’s kids last year, with 12.9% in charter schools, 10.5% in private schools and 5.6% home-schooled.

Projections on Latino youth

Pie chart
State Demographer's Office
Here's the State Demographer's Office estimate of 2023 Hispanic population under age 20.

Also last week, state demographer Michael Cline sent me a note steering me to his updated page on Hispanic population trends and projections. Because that population skews young, he has added a breakout for the population that’s under age 20 — roughly the school-age population.

For 2023, Hispanic people make up 11.1% of the state’s population and 18.7% of the under-20 population. Mecklenburg County has the largest Latino community, with more than 69,000 young people (Wake is second with almost 49,000).

Cline’s office projects that in 10 years just over 20% of the under-20 population will be Hispanic, and in 20 years it will reach almost 23%.

As I’ve reported before, Hispanic enrollment in CMS has grown steadily while other groups drop. Last year CMS reported that 29.5% of students were Hispanic.

It’s already back-to-school time for some students

Teacher welcoming students
Ann Doss Helms
Teacher Stephanie Beaty welcomes students to the new Central Piedmont Early College High School at an open house last week.

Despite the General Assembly’s efforts to protect a standardized summer vacation/tourism season that extends through most of August, students will be rolling into the school year beginning this week.

That’s partly because a growing number of public high schools that partner with community colleges and universities are allowed to start early to synchronize with higher education calendars. Among them: Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s newest high school, Central Piedmont Early College High, which started this morning.

Many other high schools also offer dual-enrollment classes at community colleges. And many school district leaders say lawmakers should eliminate or revise the school calendar law to allow across-the-board high school schedules that coincide with community colleges — and allow students to take midyear exams before winter break. The law requires most districts to wait until late August to start classes.

Lawmakers haven’t relented, 15 districts have decided to bring kids back this year earlier than the law allows. The buses will roll this week in Cabarrus, Kannapolis and Stanly County and next week in Gaston, Iredell, Lincoln and Cleveland Counties.

Given the open defiance of North Carolina’s calendar law, I felt certain that lawmakers would use this year’s session to either end the mandate or impose penalties for ignoring it. But it looks like neither is happening. Lesson: If you want accurate predictions about what will happen in Raleigh, don’t come to me.

Bus driver shortage leads to drastic measures in Wake

Bus driver on school bus
Ann Doss Helms
CMS Transportation Director Adam Johnson demonstrates one of the district's new express routes.

Today also marks the debut of the CMS express bus system. Central Piedmont’s high school is the first of a dozen high school magnets that will provide transportation … but only if students can get to and from stops located at schools around the county. For some, that means getting several miles from home, along busy roads in rush-hour traffic.

CMS officials say a driver shortage has forced them to eliminate some neighborhood pickups. That’s unpopular with parents, but last week Wake County Public Schools unveiled an even more drastic measure: For some middle and high schools, students will get transportation only on alternating weeks. Wake, the state’s largest district, has 32 year-round schools that began their year in July. District officials say by the time all students return Aug. 28 there just won’t be enough drivers to staff all routes.

North Carolina’s youngest readers make gains

Last week’s state Board of Education meeting brought welcome news from the literacy front: K-3 students showed gains on Amplify reading exams that outstripped counterparts across the country. State Superintendent Catherine Truitt said it’s a sign that the statewide teacher training in science-of-reading strategies is paying off.

That’s good news, but don’t expect miracles when the state posts results from state exams in September. If you look at the charts in the story by WUNC’s Liz Schlemmer, you’ll see that racial disparities persist, and that the strongest results came from the youngest students, whose learning wasn’t disrupted by remote instruction.

Big gains on third-grade reading scores have proven elusive so far, but slow, steady progress in the years leading up to state testing is surely a hopeful sign.

Leadership churn: It’s not just CMS

I’ve done a lot of reporting on the revolving-door superintendency in CMS, but a recent tally by Education NC shows it’s one of 30 North Carolina districts going into this school year with a vacancy, an interim or a very new superintendent. That’s about one in four of the state’s 115 districts.

A new article in The Assembly details some of the culture war challenges that led to one of those departures, the resignation of Orange County’s Monique Felder. The Assembly is known for in-depth long-form journalism, and I’m looking forward to diving into this piece.

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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.