Children, Choices and Charter Schools

Editor's note: Story updated March 8, 2017.

The day Kelley Brake had been waiting for had finally arrived. She rushed home to her computer, logged on to the website and scanned the list – a modern-day equivalent of a fat acceptance letter in the mail. Her heart dropped. The name she was looking for was not among them.

It wasn’t her own name she was searching for, but rather Cooper, her son’s name. This website was not that of an Ivy League university, but of Community School of Davidson, a popular local charter school. Even though Cooper’s name had been drawn during the lottery earlier in the day, he was not one of the students guaranteed a spot for the upcoming year. Instead, he was wait-listed – at number 253.

Charter schools are schools without tuition or fees that operate without some of the rules written for traditional public schools. An increasingly popular option for parents, they are independent of local school boards and have more freedom to experiment with different teaching methods. In 2011, North Carolina legislators voted to lift the 100-school limit on charters, and since the number of charter schools has grown exponentially each year.

Charter school admissions in North Carolina are conducted through a lottery process overseen by the department of public instruction. So, before you take a chance on lady luck, here’s what you need to know.

Do Your Research

Understanding the learning needs of your child is a good place to start, as most charter schools adhere to specific teaching philosophies. For example, while Carolina International School in Concord focuses on providing a global education, Charlotte’s Metrolina Regional Scholars Academy is specifically designed to meet the needs of students with high innate intellectual abilities, and therefore, all students are required to achieve a certain score range on an IQ test before they are even allowed to participate in the lottery for Metrolina. Many charter schools offer a foreign language option – great for a budding linguist. But in the same vein, others don’t have a gym or offer sports programs – a bummer for your aspiring athlete.

"Know your child and their interests; know the missions of the schools you are studying before you apply; know the expectations of the schools to which you are applying both time commitment and financial," says Janis Dellinger-Holton, principal at Socrates Academy in Matthews. "And lastly, be committed to partner with the administration, the teachers and the governing board of the school."

Understand the Policies

Because charter schools operate differently than traditional public schools, be prepared to deal with individual policies. For example, most don’t offer bus transportation, so you’ll need to come up with your own shuttle plan.

If you’re enrolling multiple siblings, state law requires parents wait until the admitted child attends school for one year before siblings can be put on the priority list – meaning they will then get priority over the regular wait list. Dress codes are in place at many schools, and some require placement testing once students are admitted.

Nearly every charter school offers guided tours and open houses, offering a glimpse into the school’s environment and teaching practices. Most lotteries are held in the late winter/early spring, so it’s better not to delay.

Expect the Unexpected

Many charters have waitlists, and some are long. Community School of Davidson has the longest in the state, currently numbering more than 3,400. If you’re wait-listed, don’t despair. You can apply to the lottery each year, and there are always silver-lining stories. It turned out that Brake’s son, Cooper, found a perfect fit at the public school he was districted for.

Amy Salvatore Reiss is a freelance writer. A mother of two, she lives in Davidson.

See our Charter School Directory