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Most NC school districts inch up in enrollment, while charter growth keeps booming

Students file out of South Mecklenburg High School during a recent dismissal.
Ann Doss Helms
Students file out of South Mecklenburg High School during a recent dismissal.

Most North Carolina school districts grew slightly this year, but few are back to pre-pandemic enrollment.

A new state tally for the first month of school shows most of the growth came in charter schools. That’s a trend that predates the pandemic, as the state has steadily authorized more charter schools and expanded existing ones.

Charter schools are publicly-funded schools that report to nonprofit boards, rather than elected school boards. The state currently has 216 charter and lab schools (which are affiliated with colleges and universities) serving about 140,000 students. That’s up more than 6% in one year and 19% since before the pandemic, according to a spreadsheet compiled by Education NC.

Many school districts saw enrollment levels off before the pandemic, and drop sharply when COVID-19 disrupted classes. Cabarrus and Stanly county schools are among only nine districts that are more than 1% above 2019 enrollment.

Union County, Iredell-Statesville, Lincoln County and Kannapolis are among 13 districts that are essentially back to pre-pandemic enrollment, falling within 1% of 2019.

Others are still down significantly, including Charlotte-Mecklenburg, Gaston, Rowan-Salisbury and Anson county schools, which are all at least 4% below 2019 enrollment.

Enrollment affects how many teachers the state pays for, how crowded classrooms are and where districts build new schools. The state did not cut staffing because of enrollment loss during the pandemic, but ongoing shortfalls could lead to lost jobs. And districts must pass along a per-pupil share of county education funding for each local student attending charter schools.

The number of students enrolled in any given school or district changes constantly. The state tracks monthly averages, as well as a snapshot of enrollment on the final day of each month. The tally at the end of the first month is generally considered the official enrollment for a school year.

CMS, for instance, reported an end-of-month tally of 141,219. Its first-month daily average was just under 140,000, second only to Wake County with about 156,100. Union, Cabarrus and Gaston counties are in the top 10.

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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.