Choosing a school? You’ve got options.
If you live in North Carolina and are curious about school choice options for your child, this post is for you. Where you send your child to school impacts whether they are inspired, happy, and equipped for success, and you may have more school options than you realize! This post will breakdown the main types of schools available to you in North Carolina, as well as provide additional education resources.
North Carolina has a variety of learning environments to choose from. You can choose from traditional public schools, public charter schools, public magnet schools, private schools, online learning, homeschooling, and microschooling and mix-and-match learning
Looking for special education options? You can learn what special education services are available in North Carolina at the Ultimate Guide to Special Education.
- Traditional Public Schools
- Public Charter Schools
- Public Magnet Schools
- Private Schools
- Online Schools
North Carolina Traditional Public Schools
Most children in North Carolina attend traditional public schools. Traditional public schools are free to attend, open to all students, operated by school districts, and funded by taxpayers like you. Did you know that North Carolina spends an average of $10,655 per public school student each year?
Most states have some form of open enrollment, which refers to whether parents can send their child to a public school other than their assigned school. This is an important choice, widening parents’ options and ensuring that their zip code isn’t the sole determiner of their education. Unfortunately, North Carolina families generally do not have open enrollment options.
There are, however, a few circumstances where a transfer might be possible. For example, a student may be able to request a school transfer if they move during the school year, if they are a child of an employee at the school they wish to transfer into, or if they are experiencing a unique hardship that would be mitigated by a transfer. For a real-world example, you may wish to check out Lenoir County Public Schools’ transfer request form.
There are also some districts, like Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, that have “choice zones” giving families a few options of schools to choose from.
Find out more about public schools in your state at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction. You can also learn more about open enrollment at “Public Schools Without Boundaries: A 50-State Ranking.”
North Carolina Charter Schools
Charter schools represent another free, public school choice that is open to all students. These schools are distinct from traditional public schools in that they have extra freedom to innovate. Charters are accountable to authorizing entities for student achievement. Charter schools can share the fruits of their innovation with traditional classrooms.
The 2022-2023 school year marked 25 years since charter schools first opened in North Carolina. Today, the state has about 200 public charter schools and more than 8% of public school students attend a charter school. Six additional charter schools are approved to open in 2024.
Each school has a charter which explains the school’s purpose and what specific community need it serves, whether that be providing a Spanish immersion program or offering a rigorous STEAM curriculum. If there are more families seeking admittance to a charter school than there are seats, a lottery system is usually used to determine admittance.
You can also check out the North Carolina Association for Public Charter Schools.
North Carolina Magnet Schools
Magnet schools are free public schools that allow kids to narrow in on a specific learning track, such as engineering or the performing arts. Magnet schools teach all subjects through the lenses of that specific track. If there is one near you with a theme that interests your child, this could be a good school fit.
North Carolina has many magnet schools throughout the state. Some districts with magnet schools or programs include Cabarrus County Schools, Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, Durham Public Schools, Surry County Schools, Guilford County Schools, Gaston County Schools, Onslow County Schools, Wake County Public School System, and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools.
North Carolina’s magnet schools have themes that range from international languages to cosmetology, and from Montessori to digital marketing. In Raleigh, Washington Magnet School was recently named the top magnet elementary school in the nation! The 100-year-old school has a Gifted and Talented theme with 200 elective choices.
We interviewed one North Carolina magnet school, Atkins Academic and Technology High School. Principal Joe Childers described the philosophy of magnet programs this way: “When kids enjoy where they are, if kids feel engaged, that’s half the battle. If kids have an interest or feel connected, they’re going to try harder.”
North Carolina Private Schools
In North Carolina, private schools (nonpublic schools that charge tuition) come in all shapes and forms. Private schools may offer a unique curriculum, smaller class sizes, or a faith-based tradition. There are more than 780 private schools across the state of North Carolina. The average tuition for private schools in the state is $9,056 for elementary schools and $10,066 for high schools.
North Carolina offers an expansive private school choice program that makes choosing a private school more accessible to all families, especially low-income families. Starting in 2024, any family in the state can apply for an Opportunity Scholarship, which can be used for private school expenses, including tuition and transportation. Low-income families will receive priority for scholarships and the largest scholarship amounts, up to about $7,400. You can find all the details in our full explainer. North Carolina also offers flexible scholarships for students with special learning needs through the North Carolina Personal Education Students Accounts for Children with Disabilities Program (ESA+).
For a deep data dive into North Carolina’s private schools, check out this analysis of the state’s private school landscape.
North Carolina Online Learning
Whether your child wants to accelerate his or her learning or needs a quieter environment in which to focus, you may be interested in giving virtual school a try. Free, full-time online learning options available to families statewide include North Carolina Virtual Academy and North Carolina Cyber Academy, both of which serve grades K-12.
Additionally, middle school and high school students may enroll in online courses part-time via North Carolina Virtual Public School. Especially in rural districts, some students use North Carolina Virtual to take classes not offered at their local school, such as an Advanced Placement class, STEM class, or alternative class. Public school students interested in attending North Carolina Virtual Public School should connect with their school’s e-learning advisor, since enrollment takes place through local schools and North Carolina Virtual Public School does not grant diplomas. Students not enrolled in public schools may be required to pay tuition.
There are also some district-run online or blended options, such as Crossroads Flex High School, Charlotte Mecklenburg Virtual Schools, Granville Academy, Buncombe County Schools Virtual Academy, and Guilford e-Learning. A new partnership between NC State University and North Carolina Virtual Public School has created the Virtual School Network to support and connect local traditional public schools offering virtual learning.
To read more about online learning in North Carolina, check out the Digital Learning Collaborative’s state profile.
North Carolina Homeschooling
Many North Carolina families choose homeschooling, the process of parents educating students at home. In North Carolina, notice of your intent to homeschool is required prior to starting. It is recommended that you formally withdraw from your public school so your student is not marked truant. In the case that you decide to return to public school, you should notify the NC Division of Non-Public Education and contact your local principal for the enrollment process.
While the state doesn’t lay out specific subjects that homeschooling families must teach, it does require that homeschooling students take a standardized test annually. Unfortunately, children who are homeschooled may face roadblocks if they want to participate in public school sports or activities in North Carolina. But, you can always look for other sports leagues and co-ops!
North Carolina offers funding assistance for students with disabilities, including homeschooled students, through a state-funded program.
We talked to one homeschooling mom and co-op leader, Kristin Jackson. Jackson never expected to try homeschooling. But, her son’s medical needs started her on a homeschooling journey that has turned her into an advocate. Now she’s working to spread the word about homeschooling as an education choice.
“We’re really looking to get the word out, especially to minorities,” said Jackson. “A lot of people of color don’t know about the opportunities to homeschool or they feel like it’s not something that people of color do. In Charlotte, there’s more than 600 families in our Facebook group alone, people in Charlotte and within the outskirts of Charlotte that homeschool. There’s a huge, thriving community for whatever you’re interested in.”
As of 2023, more than 150,000 students are homeschooling in North Carolina. Find a great how-to about North Carolina homeschooling at the Home School Legal Defense Association. You can also find resources on the state’s Department of Public Instruction page, and at North Carolinians for Home Education.
North Carolina Microschools and Mix-and-Match Learning
Today, some North Carolina families are mixing and matching school options to come up with new ways to personalize education. Microschools are one of these ways. A microschool refers to students gathering together in a small group – with adult supervision – to learn, explore, and socialize. Microschools can take a variety of shapes and legal forms, from homeschoolers coming together at an enrichment center to a private school committed to small classrooms. What microschools share in common is a commitment to small-group learning and close-knit relationships, along with an emphasis on children as individual learners.
Here are a few real examples of microschools and innovative learning resources in your state:
- Roots School is a private membership association based out of Durham that provides families the freedom to choose how their child will learn.
- Burbrella Learning Academy operates an in-person microschool in Burlington, as well as an online learning microschool for non-local families.
- Sometimes learning pods are district-run. For example, Edgecombe County Public Schools in rural North Carolina won a grant to test out learning hubs as a way to give students of all ages more flexibility in their education. The district is also experimenting with early learning pods for three and four-year-olds. Similarly, Guilford County Public Schools has partnered with community organizations to launch learning hubs and give students a blended learning option.
- The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services has required organizations to obtain a license in order to provide childcare for school-age children. Organizations contracting with a public school are exempt. Read about an affordable Learning Support Group in Charlotte that partnered with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.
Remember, microschooling is more a mentality than a specific legal distinction in most cases. Often, a family participates in a microschool while legally homeschooling, or being enrolled in a private or online school.
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