CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- At Sugar Creek Charter School on North Tryon Street in Charlotte, black students make up 96% of the student body while at Community School of Davidson, black students account for about 3% of the school.
And a Duke University researcher who studied charter schools in North Carolina found charters are more racially segregated than traditional public schools.
Charter school advocates say the segregation is an inevitable part of giving parents choice over where their kids go to school and parents and students are just “voting with their feet.”
“I honestly have never met a soul who said, ‘I chose Sugar Creek because all the kids were black.' I just haven't,” said Cheryl Turner, Director at Sugar Creek Charter School.
At charter schools students typically apply and are chosen at random through a lottery. So charters say their students simply reflect the races of the applicant pool.
At last count there were 709 black students at Sugar Creek and five whites.
“When we have open house we might have three white parents come and a lot of times, if they come and see who else is here, this isn’t the choice they want to make,” said Turner.
Turner says neighborhood schools, especially elementary schools, near North Tryon and West Sugar Creek are also largely segregated.
“So this environment -– a segregated environment –- is the school they were going to go to if they went to school in Mecklenburg County,” she said.
But while Sugar Creek offers bus service and free and reduced school lunches, many charters don’t.
“Charter schools that don't provide transportation or lunch are going to find it very difficult to attract disadvantaged students,” said Helen Ladd, a Duke University researcher who has studied the racial makeup of charters in North Carolina.
Shannon Stein of Lake Norman Charter said, “We do have families that reach out to us for financial assistance and we do have an economic need form that we utilize and we provide lunches for students whose families cannot and we have those students.”
Stein says staff have reached out to recruit more minority students for Lake Norman.
“They’ve gone into church after church after church and try to target different kinds of churches” to recruit students, she said.
But because Lake Norman does not participate in the free and reduced school lunch program, it’s hard to say from public records just what portion of its student body would qualify.
Of charter schools that do participate in the subsidized lunch program, the rates can vary wildly, from 100% of the students at the Kennedy Charter School on Sharon Road West to 14% at Queens Grant Community School’s K-8 program in Mint Hill.
Researchers like Helen Ladd at Duke say students at largely segregated schools lose cultural competency.
“You come away as elitist and not understanding what diversity is all about,” she said.
Ladd found that black parents and white parents at charter schools would tolerate different ratios of other races before fleeing a charter school.
“Once they have 50% to 60% nonwhite (students), the whites leave,” Ladd concluded. She said black parents would tolerate a 50/50 school but the difference between the tolerance levels lead to more segregated charters.
Ladd’s research finds that statewide, charter schools in North Carolina are more racially imbalanced than public schools. What’s hard to say is whether such segregation is the result of intentional policies -– or simply the byproduct of school choice.