by Tori Hamby

There’s a high demand for a spot at Pine Lake Preparatory, a Mooresville-based charter school that enrolls more than 1,600 kindergarten through 12th-grade students.

More than 1,200 families applied to enroll their children in one of the school’s 120 kindergarten slots for the current school year. Pine Lake Prep Head of School Chris Terrill said more than 3,000 students remain on a waitlist for all grades.

It’s a similar story at other charters schools across the Lake Norman region as parents clamor to enroll their students in schools they believe can place their children at an advantage when it comes to academic achievement and college admissions.

“There’s a high demand for a good product,” Terrill said. “If parents feel like a public school system isn’t doing its job, then they will vote with their feet by enrolling their students in school that they feel will do a better job.”

But do charter schools make it harder for traditional public schools – some of which are already disadvantaged by overcrowding, apathetic parents, underfunding and low state-mandated test scores – to do their jobs?

Some parents whose children have gone through a traditional school system, such as area resident Claudette Kaveler, say the charter school admissions process – which requires parents to actively enter their child in a public lottery – takes the students with parents highly invested in their child’s education out of traditional schools and into charter schools.

Traditional schools are often left with students whose parents are less likely to volunteer with their child’s school or work one-on-one with teachers to address behavior or low academic achievement, she said.

“It’s like comparing apples to oranges,” Kaveler said.

Charter schools, unlike traditional public schools, aren’t required to offer transportation and hot lunches, automatically denying admission to students who need those services to attend, she added.

A source of competition

When it comes to achievement, Lake Norman area charter schools have academic achievement records to justify the high demand.

Pine Lake Prep, Lincoln Charter and Lake Norman Charter received Honor School of Excellence designations from the state, the highest academic designation the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction can give to a school.

More than 90 percent of a school’s student population and all students in state-designated demographic subgroups – called Annual Measurable Objectives – must score a Level 3 or 4 on state-mandated end-of-course and end-of-grade tests to earn the designation.

Mountain Island Charter and Community School of Davidson both barely missed earning Honor School of Excellence status. Community School of Davidson, a School of Excellence with 96 percent of its students at or above grade level, missed the designation because it didn’t meet all of its Annual Measurable Objectives. More than 88 percent of students at Mountain Island Charter, a School of Distinction, were at or above grade level last year.

And when schools turn out results like these, Terrill said, it is tough for some parents to resist the lure of charters.

Ann Clark, chief academic officer for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, said the school district has felt the effects of a surge in charter schools in Charlotte region during the past 10 years. Public schools sometimes can’t gain extra support positions, such as an assistant principal or guidance counselors, because of a decrease in student enrollment due to charter schools. She said some high schools might have to cut the number of advanced courses offered to compensate for enrollment decreases.

Student-teacher ratios, however, typically aren’t affected, she said.

“The effects of charter schools wouldn’t necessarily be visible at the classroom level,” Clark said. “But schools that lose a significant number of students might lose the ability to offer a second Advanced Placement course or another assistant principal.”

Terrill said the competition derived by a free, public alternative to traditional public schools keeps all schools – private, charter and public – on their toes. He said that Iredell County’s Mount Mourne IB School, a middle school that offers the advanced International Baccalaureate curriculum, attracts the same students and parents typically attracted to a charter school.

“Competition should fuel innovation and growth,” he said. “If Mount Mourne started to pull students out of Pine Lake Prep and into their school, we would figure out what we could do better and start to do things differently.”

Although most charter schools in the Lake Norman area use a college prep academic curriculum, others outside of the area face different circumstances. Some charter schools, such as KIPP Charlotte, locate themselves in underprivileged neighborhoods and target some of the state’s most at-risk, underperforming students.

These schools remain under the close watch of the state Board of Education and the North Carolina Charter School Advisory Council. Charter schools can be closed for low academic performance or financial mismanagement, said John Betterton, a charter school advisory council member.

He said the state board can revoke a school’s charter if 60 percent or less of its students are below grade level without meeting academic growth goals for two consecutive years.

Schools can contest their charter revocations in court, Betterton said.

The state board has voted to terminate charters at Bridges Charter School in Wilkes County, Cape Lookout Marine Science High School in Morehead City and Highland Charter School in Gaston County during the past year.

Betterton said a school could also be closed if administrators make “governing decisions” that go against its state-approved charter.

“Let’s say that a school is referred to the state by an individual for a violation of governance,” he said. “They aren’t following their charter as printed in their charter application that they submitted to the state. The state office of charter schools would investigate that and recommend corrective action. If the problem isn’t fixed, the charter could be revoked.”

Leveling the playing field?

Terrill, who worked in Florida charter schools for seven years before coming to Pine Lake Prep earlier this year, said North Carolina charter school legislation could be tweaked to level the playing field for traditional schools.

In Florida, charter schools are required to offer transportation, giving more students access to a traditional school alternative.

Similar legislation in North Carolina would diversify local charter schools, he said.

“Since there’s no requirement from the state for transportation, we’re primarily pulling students from our immediate area,” he said. “The physical location of the school has a lot to do with that.”

Clark said she would like to see traditional schools afforded a similar amount of deregulation as charter schools.

“One of the things we have been consistent in saying is that we would like to have the same flexibility and autonomy that charter schools have,” Clark said.