When John Berry’s daughter started kindergarten at a Chatham County public school in 2006, she was academically ahead of her class. After watching her bring home the same worksheet for homework three nights in a row — because the other kids weren’t getting it — Berry decided to take a look at other options.
His wife had told him about the K-12 Woods Charter School in Chapel Hill.
Once one of the storefronts in the North Chatham Village strip mall off Highway 15-501, the school now stands alone on an 18-acre campus completed in 2008, 10 years after the school was first founded.
The next year, Berry decided his kids should give it a try.
Now, his older daughter is in eighth grade, his younger daughter is in fourth and he’s in his ninth year coaching the boys varsity basketball team at Woods Charter.
“It has been the best decision that we made for our kids because they’re very, very academically inclined,” he said.
Woods Charter has a lot to offer. The school designates itself as a college preparatory school, and each year more than 80 percent of its graduates are accepted to four-year colleges and universities. Its students outscore the other Chatham County public high schools on end-of-the-year exams and four-year graduation rates. It has a low student-to-teacher ratio — 11-to-1 — and a high level of involvement and community — about 75 percent of parents volunteer, Volunteer Coordinator Heather Gallagher said. But like most other North Carolina charter schools, it’s missing one thing — racial diversity.
In April, Duke University researchers Helen Ladd, Charles Clotfelter and John Holbein released a study showing the racial imbalance of the state’s charter schools.
The number of North Carolina charter schools that are more than 90 percent white has risen from less than one-tenth to one-fifth since 1998, the report says. During that time, the regular public school population of North Carolina became less white, falling from 64.1 to 53 percent.
Woods Charters’ whiteness isn’t anyone’s fault, said Berry, who is a minority parent himself, but it was a fact of the first round of applicants when the school opened at its freestanding location.
“That particular group was not diverse,” Berry said. “Everyone in the community knew this school was coming about. The problem was, a lot of the diversity in the community didn’t respond to that call … So as our consequence, the school was initially provisioned with what we have today.”
It’s difficult to turn the tide when the lottery is random and spots are limited, Berry said.
Woods Charter keeps its classes small, with 504 students in the entire school — and 1,500 hopeful students on the waiting list. Kathi Shaw, who works in the admissions department, said the school receives between 225 and 350 applications for the 32 kindergarten spots and about 100 applications for each of the other grades, where there are a varying number of openings, each year.
Shaw said though the lottery is completely random, like most other charter schools, many parents think the odds of getting in are too small to even bother applying.
Legally, the school can’t change its lottery system to designate a certain number of spots for minorities — unless it amends the mission statement section of its charter.
“It’s not that it’s not permissible,” Deanna Townsend-Smith, lead consultant at the N.C. Office of Charter Schools, said, citing the state statute governing charter schools. “It has to align with the school’s mission, so if a school is requesting it, and it doesn’t mesh with their mission statement, then it’s not going to be approved.”
State law prohibits them from using race as an admissions factor, unless they change their mission statement and become an exception to the rule.
Woods Charter’s mission statement doesn’t mention diversity, and that’s not uncommon for the state’s charter schools.
“Since they can’t exclude students, typically what you get is what is entered in the lottery,” she said.
Townsend-Smith said some charter schools have tried to change their lottery policies without changing their mission statements, but the board won’t approve those changes.
She said that the process of changing a school’s charter isn’t difficult, but there are several steps that require approval by the state Charter School Advisory Board.
There’s one school that’s done it –– the Central Park School for Children in Durham. However, the Central Park School allots space for students who qualify to receive free and reduced lunch rather than students from ethnic minority groups.
Pete Rubinas, head of Willow Oak Montessori Charter School in Chapel Hill, said he has talked to administrators at the Central Park School about doing something similar for Willow Oak.
“We’re proud of the diversity that we’ve been able to achieve so far, but we’re not where we want to be yet,” he said. “We believe that children are best prepared for the challenges of the real world if their education is occurring in an environment that reflects that real world.”
He acknowledged that the Durham school hasn’t achieved its diversity goals, though –– the school’s student population was about 46 percent whiter than the population of Durham Public Schools in the 2014-15 school year.
Shaw said Woods Charter has looked into changing its charter to allot space for minority students as well, but that state laws make the process difficult.
Berry and Shaw said the school tries to reach out to minority families at fairs, churches and the summer basketball camp Berry helps run. Shaw said she thinks the school’s efforts have paid off.
“I do feel like our efforts to become more diversified are evident in our younger grade’s enrollment,” she said. “Word of mouth is the best means of recruitment.”
Willow Oak has engaged in similar efforts to recruit minorities, including hiring a Spanish-speaking office administrator and having school board members meet families at school bus stops in ethnically diverse neighborhoods.
“Given that we have a diversity-blind lottery system that we’re forced to work with, we knew that we needed to try to get as many applications as possible from diverse communities,” Rubinas said. “In all honesty, it was only moderately successful at getting people to apply.”
For both schools, minority and low-income parents aren’t always interested in applying.
Woods Charter provides free and reduced meals and, to an extent, transportation — services most charter schools in the state do not offer and that low-income families depend on.
Charter schools receive 89 percent of the state funding other public schools do, and that funding is a per-pupil allotment, regardless of the services the school chooses to provide, Townsend-Smith said.
Woods Charter has a foundation to raise some of the money it needs to provide meals for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch and transportation. Willow Oak fundraises to provide food for low-income students and organizes carpools. Charter schools aren’t required to provide either food or transportation, like other public schools are.
Woods Charter doesn’t send buses to every neighborhood, but it does have three buses that pick up students at public locations in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Pittsboro and Durham.
With donations from 86 percent of families and 100 percent of the faculty, donations as small as $20 and as large as $20,000, the school has raised its goal of fundraising $200,000 each year, Gallagher said.
“This year, we’re (going to) raise $250,000,” Gallagher said.
Still, the school’s transportation system operates on a “fair share” program, where the school sends home a letter requesting that the family pay about $2 per bus ride.
Between 50 and 75 percent of families pay, estimated Shaw.
“If families can’t afford it, they can’t afford it,” she said. “Some just pay what they can.”
Shaw and Gallagher said they’ve worked to make the school’s admissions process, which consists of an online application and a random lottery, more accessible to low-income families.
“It’s rare that someone doesn’t have computer access at home or at a library, but it has happened,” Shaw said of families who have called or come to the school to ask about the application. “I’ve actually filled it out for them.”
She acknowledged that families without these resources might not know that help with the application is possible — or even that the school exists. The school’s sports teams only play other charter schools, and the building itself is tucked behind trees, out of sight of the main road.
“All we can do is have parents tell everyone what a great place it is,” Shaw said.
Berry said there’s a recruitment problem — that he’s reaching out to minority families, but he can’t always convince them that Woods Charter is the best option.
Some parents, he said, let the kids make the decision, and most kids don’t want to go to a school where they won’t be with their friends from their old school or their neighborhood.
Sometimes, Berry said, parents don’t want to send their kids to Woods Charter because of their athletic potential.
“They’ll say, I don’t know, Woods doesn’t really have a good team, and my kid’s going to be the next Michael Jordan,” Berry said. “And they’re killing their kid, and this is what happens, you see the same parent two, three, four years later, and the whole sport thing didn’t work out for the kid, and then they got a subpar education.”
Almost always, it comes down to the parents.
“Believe it or not, a lot of these parents, because of their lack of knowledge or their lack of education that they have, when you speak to them, they may or may not be hearing you,” Berry said.
And it’s unfortunate, Berry said, because these are the families who would benefit from a school like Woods Charter the most, because the school provides individual attention they might not get at home.
“I think it may be tougher for them to go to a regular public school,” he said. “I think the low-income families are the families that don’t really have a lot, or they don’t really have the infrastructure at home, I think Woods is like a godsend to them … you’ll probably find surrogate parents. I mean it’s absolutely spectacular.”
Berry told the story of a student, who has since graduated, who came to Woods Charter after his father committed suicide and his mother fell into a deep depression.
“Woods accepted him with open arms, looked out for him, tried to keep him positive, got him through school,” he said.
While he’d like to see more diversity at Woods, Berry said it’s worth sending his kids there for the academic rigor, and that he’s managed to give them exposure to diversity outside of the classroom.
“If you have your kids, and the only thing your kids were exposed to was school, in my case, then it may not be the best scenario for them,” he said. “With Woods, it could be an issue, but it’s not an issue for us because what we do is, we augment that part of our kids’ experience with other things.”
His daughters are part of the Bouncing Bulldogs jump rope demonstration team, which consists of kids from the Research Triangle Park area and gives them the opportunity to travel.
“As long as you are supplementing your kids’ experience with other things, you can still overcome certain aspects of something that’s a little bit deficient somewhere else,” he said. “Because we’re doing some other things to supplement that, it really doesn’t hurt us as much.”