Wake County Schools, Research Triangle Schools, North Carolina School System, Magnet Schools, Charter Schools, Public Schools – how good are they, what you need to know.
As a blogger, educator, and owner of a tutoring center, I will from time to time get emails or phone calls from parents who are moving to the area or have just moved into the area who want to know more about schools in North Carolina. You will find some individual reviews of schools on my blog but I wanted to write a more general review to help guide new families. Many families do not know the difference between public, charter, magnet, and private schools, so I will start with that and get more specific.
Public Schools: North Carolina Public School system is not ranked in the top 10 nor is it ranked in the bottom 10 of schools in the United States. However, so much depends on WHAT schools you are talking about, specifically in what county and at what level. Also different individual schools have better reputations than other individual schools. If you want to consider a public school and have not bought a house yet, then looking at what schools are assigned for that area would be important, although, these lines can change. Since North Carolina is growing rapidly, especially in the urban areas, new schools are constantly being built and hence students are being shifted, so you cannot assume you will be at the school you planned on unless you are in the magnet or charter system.
The public schools, however, are funded by the State of North Carolina. Teachers in our state are no paid very well, however, and we have high teacher turnover. We have some GREAT teachers but we also have some teachers who are just collecting a paycheck (small as it is) and many who leave for other states or other jobs in general because they cannot live off the salary. As a general rule, however, most elementary teachers are all very good and I have never seen an elementary school in Wake County (my county) do a bad job. Once you get to middle and high school, however, you really need to be more selective. The content and expectations of learning have increased and with poor teachers, students get lost and it has a negative impact on their future. This is not to say we don’t have good middle and high school teachers, but you need to be aware of the schools that are better and those that are not and if needed, get a tutor when you get bad luck and get a bad teacher in a subject like math that builds on itself.
A few schools, although you cannot choose to attend these, you have to have this as your base school AND you have to apply and get selected by a lottery drawing will have an academy within the school. One school has an AOIT academy, Academy of Information Technology, another has AOE, Academy of Engineering. These are kind of like a minor at the school where you take 1-2 required classes in the Academy related to that field and do an internship before you graduate. Examples for the AOIT might be taking classes in Microsoft Office Suite and Programming. In AOE, you would take classes called Project Lead the Way and take Introduction to Engineering and Principals of Engineering, etc. Each academy has 4-6 class course requirements plus the internship.
As far as academic knowledge, North Carolina sets the bar very high. Many students coming from other states end up BEHIND because our expectations and standards are high. This is both good and bad. The good is that smart kids get the chance to live up to those expectations and be well prepared academically for college. The bad is that students who struggle academically, get pushed through the system and everything falls apart for those kids.
We also have block scheduling in most high schools which may not be common in other states. Block scheduling is where high school students take classes similar to the way a college student would take classes on a semester schedule. The year is divided into two 18 week semesters. Each semester, high school students take 4 classes that meet for 90 minutes, so four classes in the Fall and another 4 in the Spring. People not used to this think it is terrible but personally, I like it a lot. For one, it gives more time in class to focus on content, second students are only dealing with and studying for 4 classes at a time so they have more time to devote to those studies, and third it allows students to take 8 classes a year which gives them amazing elective choices in addition to the core courses which are not possible with a traditional schedule.
Magnet Schools: Magnet schools are part of the public school system except that they tend to be in poorer socioeconomic area (but we are not talking high crime or bad neighborhoods). Part of the school is made up of a regular base population, just like your normal base school but a certain percentage of the school is saved for “magnet” students. The word magnet is used because the school has special themes and resources used to attract students from greater distances to this school (in this lower socioeconomic area) to attend. There are magnet schools at the elementary, middle, and high school levels. Examples of elementary school magnets might include: Montessori, Leadership, Academically Gifted (AG), Gifted and Talented (GT), IB, Language Immersion, or a combination of these. Examples of middle schools are some of the same although there is not a Montessori or Language Immersion at the middle level (in Wake County) but they have schools that are located in downtown Raleigh that are AG/GT/Museums , this means it is a combination of all three and the museum aspect is that students often get walking field trips to all the museums in downtown Raleigh due to its proximity. There is also an all girls and all boys academy that flows into the Early College model for high school that starts with 6th grade. (North Carolina middle school are grades 6,7, and8). High school examples include: Early College options such as a Health Science Early College, the Girls and Boys Early College Academies, and a STEM Early College; all of these have students attend high school for 5 years instead of 4. They partner with a college and during grades 11, 12, and 13, the students attend college classes and graduate high school with both a high school diploma and an Associates Degree. Other high school options include a 4 year Tech College partnership for those interested in Cosmotology, Airconditioning Repair, Computer Game Design and Development, and more. These students take college courses in grades 11 and 12 and graduate with at least a years worth of college credit in addition to their high school diploma. All the Early College costs are covered completely, so if your child attends, there is no cost to you. More traditional magnet schools will be Leadership and Technology or Academically Gifted / Gifted and Talented, IB Schools, and more. These schools will have programs such as specific academies within school like a Biotech Academy, Engineering Academy, or Cyber Security academy that your child can take part in where it is like a school within a school. These are similar to the ones mentioned in the base public schools but are much easier to get into if you are a magnet student. They also have a significant number of elective choices that you won’t find at the base schools. The AG/GT/IB school will have multiple languages, every AP and IB class possible, as well as piano classes, guitar, dance, many more art classes than one would normally have, and things like an entire department of classes in computer programming.
Can anyone become a Magnet Student? First, not all counties have magnet programs. I can only speak about Wake county (those mentioned here are from Wake County). I doubt there are much in the way of Magnet schools in any rural counties. Second, you must apply to get into the magnet program and you may or may not be selected. It depends on what school you want to go into, there is VERY high demand for some schools and less demand for others. Once you ARE a magnet student, however, it is easier then to transfer to a different magnet school, you will have priority over new students applying to get in. The process is to usually go to the Magnet fair that is held the first weekend in November every year and then go take tours of the magnet schools. You then make sure you are signed up to attend the base school and put in an application with a list of choices for magnets. You get to list your top 3, more if you list an early college as they select those before the rest. Early Colleges are the hardest to get a place in although I believe the Health Science Early College is the easiest of all the early colleges to get a spot at. We did apply to two early colleges and did not get a spot but got a spot in a regular magnet for 2 of my children. If you have twins and apply with both, you have a much better chance! Applications have to be sometime in January or early February, I believe (don’t hold me to that!) and results come out in early Spring. If you get a spot, you have to take it (at least as of now, it didn’t used to be that way, although I believe you can just not show up!)
What are your chances of getting selected? I will answer in a little more detail. It is NOT just a straight lottery. They have a system and give priority to many different things. Siblings, of course, get first priority, then other magnet students, then students who are coming from schools that are high performing (they want your high performing kid!), and then overcrowded schools, and then anyone else not in those categories (or something along those lines…). Of course, if select a school where they have plenty of open spots, there won’t be a problem at all, if you select a school with only 3 open spots and you fall into the “someone not in one of the high priority categories,” your chances are slim to none.
So what school have open spots if you just want to get INTO a magent (and then maybe move to a better magnet in a year)? I would call and ask, they will usually tell you, they want to fill those spots. I remember once getting a letter saying that CONN elementary had spots and if we wanted one, we could have it but we were already settled at that time so we didn’t move into magnets until middle and high school. As I said, at the elementary level, the base schools do a decent job!
What about SAFETY at these Magnet Schools? I have done open houses for my son’s magnet. The racial makeup of the schools can vary depending on the school, the number of magnet spots, and the location of the base population. Some will be balanced racially (50% white, 50% non-white) and others will be less balanced (20% white, 80% non-white). My son is at a school that is less racially balanced, we heard all sorts of rumors, etc. So, we took it upon ourselves to go there during a school day and be in the hallways. We even got some teachers to let us go in their classrooms, we talked to other parents of magnet students, and we talked to kids (magnet and nonmagnet) that went to the school. Nothing felt unsafe or negative. In fact, even the superintendent said, this school has less fights and issues than other schools with more balanced or a more-white student makeup. I haven’t met one kid at that school that wasn’t super friendly and nice! My son feels safe and has a ton of friends of all colors and I am very glad to have chosen the school. So, don’t let race be an issue and as for safety, check out the individual school yourself and make your own judgment, don’t listen to rumors!! All the negative ones we hear are from people who “would never send their kid there,” who are they to judge vs. those of use with kids at the school who all say it is a safe, friendly place.
My experience has also been that teachers at magnet schools as a whole are better than teachers at base schools. Now there are good teacher and bad teachers at ALL schools, however. After running a tutoring center and seeing kids with teachers from all area schools, I am much more impressed with the teachers from magnet schools. The only negative and this is all of NC, is the teacher turn over rate and that we lose teachers!
Charter Schools: So what is a Charter school and how is it different from a Magnet school? Both school types are under the rules of North Carolina and must meet North Carolina standards and use NC curriculum and testing requirements. However, Magnet schools (and base public schools) are also governed by the county they are in. As I mentioned, most of my experience is in Wake County Public Schools. So, all the schools in Wake County (Apex High School, Holly Springs High School, Green Hope High, Cary High, Wake Forest High, etc. AND the magnets, Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School, Enloe, Stem Early College, etc.) all follow both the rules of NC and the rules of Wake County. Charter Schools only follow the rules of North Carolina, they are their own LEA (forgot what that stands for.. Local Education Area, I think…). Charter schools get funding per student from the state put the state does not pay for their building expenses, etc. So they have to come up with a lot more resources than a public school. They still have to follow the state guidelines but if you live in Wake County you can ONLY go to Wake County schools. You cannot decide you want to go to Chapel Hill High School. However, since charter schools are not county specific, you can live in a different county and go to a charter school. I can live in Wake County and go to a charter school in Durham County or I can live just over the line in Chatham County but not want to put my kids in Chatham County schools, so I send them to a charter school in Wake County or even in Durham County.
What do Charter Schools offer? Well, besides the location flexibility, they are similar in many ways to magnet schools. They are theme based and you usually pick a charter school that has a theme that matches your educational philosophy. For example, one of my kids went to Sterling Montessori Charter School from Preschool through 8th grade (that is where it stops). Many families with special needs kids find charter schools to be great as they tend to be better at providing more reliable services to special needs students, although this is not true for ALL charters. In our case, Sterling offered amazing 1:1 resource help for our son with an IEP! He would have sank in a traditional setting! However, on the other hand when my other son went to Exploris Charter middle school, there were so many kids with “issues,” he had a hard time really finding his groove and making good friends. The school was also very “granola” for lack of a better word, which fits many families and kids but not mine, we ended up leaving part way through 8th grade as doing daily Yoga, instead of traditional PE, just didn’t fit him. So, it is important to really look for a good fit with the charter schools. My oldest attended Raleigh Charter High School, it has been ranked as one of the top ten academic high schools in the country year after year. He was very book smart and he did well there. However, we knew that it would have been the wrong fit for another one of my kids, even though it is a highly regarded school and instead he is excelling in the magnet school in the Engineering Academy and having options like Theater and Robotics.
That is another drawback to Charter schools, they are a lot smaller. This can be good and bad, your child will be in a smaller class and get to know teachers well but there will a lot less electives to choose from. One of the really good charters in Durham County is call Research Triangle High School. My son, the one in the Magnet school, was accepted there and we had to make a choice. RTHS is known as a STEM charter but has no electives in any STEM areas and only 1 STEM club, it is not the school’s fault, it is just that the school is so small. If he went there, he would have gotten some really good solid academics (I really liked the teachers) but he wouldn’t have had any electives he would have enjoyed, he wouldn’t have been in any plays, he wouldn’t have had as many people to meet to find the “right” ones to click with. So, although the teachers seemed amazing, the entire environment was too limiting so we chose the magnet and it was clearly the right choice. Making academic choices requires one consider lots of things and is a personal decision, my own thoughts on the matter is that school is not only about academics but about learning, growing, and experiencing new things – so I try to keep this in mind as I consider what option will best fit my kids.
Private Schools: In many areas of the country, parents immediately plan on sending their kids to private schools because there are no other good options. I don’t feel this is true in the Triangle area of North Carolina, especially Wake County. I often tell people that Wake County is the best county to choose for schools because we have the most options – all the charter schools are options, we have magnets, base schools, and there are always private schools. I will talk more about areas in a moment but back to private schools.
Many families that are well off, choose Cary Academy. I hear it is very good, it also costs as much as or more than it costs to send your kid with room and board and a meal plan to a public four year NC college. Since personally, I only have funds to get my kids through college once, it isn’t on my radar – but if it is for you, the campus is beautiful and I believe it is a decent school but I can’t say too much.
Other private schools people choose are often religious based, if you have a desire to go that route for religious reasons, you don’t really need to be reading any of this since that is probably your number one driving factor. *Stop reading now as I am about to give an honest review based on experience and I don’t want to be negative about something you are moving towards doing* If you are just considering it as an option for academic reasons, I will tell you that you will get a better ACADEMIC education by choosing a magnet or charter school or one of the stronger base schools. I have tutored children from some of the religious based schools and they are not rigorous. The kids, when compared to public school kids, are academically behind, so if you want a more rigorous choice that will better prepare your child, I would not select one of the religious based institutions. Now, if a religious based institution is important to you, your kid can still do fine but I don’t see any National Merit Scholarships coming from our Catholic High School, etc. He or she will still go on to college and if studious, make it in the world and as I said before academics are not the only reason to select a school.
Areas to live in
So, do you choose Wake County, Durham County, Chapel Hill, Chatham County or somewhere else?
As I mentioned, I don’t know much outside the triangle, so I can not speak too much on that. However, most of what I have heard says Durham County schools are not good, everyone I know who lives in Durham seems to have kids that are past elementary school age in a charter school or private school. Everyone I know who lives in Chatham County, puts their kids in charter schools. I have heard good things in general about Chapel Hill schools but the taxes in Chapel Hill are very expensive, they have less choices and if you have a child gifted in math, they will be forced to stay on the slow track until they are a junior in high school (unless they make changes in the future).
Currently in Wake county, a student can be single subject accelerated and work one grade level ahead in math or Language Arts OR by the time they get to 6th grade they can take 6th grade Compacted math which is 6th/7th and half of 8th all in one year, then in 7th grade they take High School Math 1 – also finishes math 8 (Alg. 1) and in 8th grade they take High School Math 2, so by the time they start high school they have two high school math credits and start in Honors Math 3 as a freshman.
In Chapel Hill, they will not let students fast forward through middle school math until 8th grade, advanced 6th grades take 6 PLUS math, 7th grades take 7 PLUS math (which I believe is 7 and half of 8), and they can’t take the first level high school math until 8th grade where they take Math 1 (and finish math 8). In 9th grade they enter with only 1 high school credit and take Honors Math 2. They can speed up in their junior year by taking Honors Math 3/Pre Calc combo class.
My kids would have been BORED in the Chapel Hill approach but that is what they feel is important. As a Ph.D. in Math Education, I think some kids are just ready earlier and we shouldn’t make them bored, it just makes them dislike the subject.
So, my vote for areas to live in is Wake County because it gives the most options. You should also consider looking at which high schools are best rated if you are not going to do a magnet or charter. Green Hope and Panther Creek have really good scores and I would personally look to live near the best high school rather than worry about an elementary school.
I hope this information is helpful and Welcome to all of you who move to North Carolina! It is a great place to live!
Lynne Gregorio, Ph.D.