Traditional school enrollment losses translate to charter school gains in rural district
Unable to stop the flight of students to area charter schools, Granville County could soon close two elementary schools and a high school — the second round of closures in the past two years.
A former school board member said last November that the district is in a “death spiral” because of the strong presence of charters such as Oxford Preparatory School and Falls Lake Academy, which account for most of the district’s enrollment losses. But in addition to losing students to charters in Granville County, the district also loses them to charters in neighboring Durham, Franklin, Vance and Wake counties. There are 37 charters in the region.
“We’ve continued to lose enrollment,” district spokesman Stan Winborne said in a recent meeting with Granville County Commissioners. “Part of that is because the number of charter schools continue to increase.”
Enrollment losses have bedeviled the district since at least 2012. That year, the district had 8,608 students. Enrollment has fallen since, dipping to 7,160 students this year, a 16.8% decrease over the decade. Those losses are expected to continue: Enrollment figures in 2021-22 budget documents  project the district will lose 360 students next school year, leaving just 6,800 students enrolled.
Meanwhile, charter school enrollment has soared. In 2012, just 188 students attended charters; this year that figure was 1,671 this school year, a 788% increase over the same time period. Charter school enrollment is expected to grow next school year by 335 students to 2,066.
The board is considering multiple scenarios under which the schools could close. Vacant campuses would be repurposed or sold for cash.
District leadership punted once before on a decision to close the schools. But School board Chairman David Richardson said it’s time the community knows whether the schools will remain open. “I think there are a lot of different scenarios we need to look at, but we can’t keep going back to the public, to the faculty, teachers, to the commissioners and keep telling them we’re kicking it down the road,” Richardson said during a work session Monday to discuss the proposal.
The board has scheduled several meetings and public hearings next month to discuss the closure proposals. State law requires districts to hold a public hearing before closing a school.
Granville Central is the district’s newest high school, which opened in 2007. The district’s plan to close it includes moving Hawley Middle School to the site or relocating South Granville High School to the campus.
Granville Central has never operated at capacity. It was at 75% – 696 students — after the first 20 days of this school year. It can handle 933 students.
Meanwhile, enrollment at Creedmoor Elementary has declined nearly every year for a decade. Enrollment was 565 during the 2010-11 school year but is currently 320. Under the district’s closure plan, current students would enroll in nearby elementary schools, all of which have “surplus capacity” or classroom space to accommodate the displaced students.
Stopping the ‘death spiral’
Wilton is a small school of roughly 250 students. It’s a high performer, a perennial “B” school on the state’s A-F School Performance Grades that consistently exceeds academic growth goals.
The school has become popular among a small, but supportive group of parents because it participates in the “The Leader in Me” program, which is based on Stephen Covey’s best-selling book, “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.”
Maggie Hall, a Wilton parent, noted that many students who attend Wilton are zoned for other schools, and that some out-of-county families pay tuition for their children to attend the school. “Some drive from Oxford, some drive from Wake County,” she said. “It’s going to be interesting to see what families do if they decide to close the school.”
Despite parental support and academic success, it’s possible that Wilton could be closed in a move to cut expenses in the wake of crippling enrollment loses to charter schools.
“Maybe it’s a marketing problem [for Granville County Public Schools],” said Hall. “We’ve been very happy with Granville County Schools. We’ve had great experiences at Wilton, and we’ve been thankful for the teachers my older daughter has had at Hawley Middle School.”
Like the other schools being considered for closure, Wilton’s enrollment has steeply declined, from 630 students in 2010 to 261 in 2021 — a drop of 60%.
District leaders point out, however, that Wilton’s enrollment slide is not entirely tied to charter schools. Its enrollment began to fall when the district opened nearby Tar River Elementary School, which pulled students from Wilton.
“Perhaps, had they [the school board] had a crystal ball, they wouldn’t have been building that school,” Hall said of Tar River Elementary.
Hall hopes a board decision to close schools doesn’t prevent it from pulling out of the “death spiral”  that Rob Rivers, the former school board member, spoke about last year.
“I certainly don’t think it [closing schools] will encourage more families with school-aged children to seek out Granville County as a stable option,” Hall said. “It does feel like a cyclical problem. They’re not solving the enrollment problem by closing schools but they’re really not able to keep the schools open because of the enrollment problem.”
A symptom of a large problem
As Policy Watch reported in November 2020 , the district is a microcosm of more widespread challenges faced by rural districts whose public school enrollments — and budgets — have been gutted by the proliferation of charter schools.
When students leave traditional public schools for charters, state dollars follow the students. Districts, however, don’t often realize commensurate cost savings. Facility, operational and transportation costs remain intact after students leave.
Granville County projects that it will pass through $4.2 million in local funding to charters schools next school year.
By trimming staff and using facilities more efficiently, the district provide students with more academic opportunities, Granville school district leaders contend.
In response to enrollment and funding losses, the district in 2019 closed two other schools: Joe Toler-Oaks Elementary Schools; it consolidated Mary Potter Middle School with Northern Granville Middle School.
Since the General Assembly lifted the 100-school cap on charter schools in 2011, the number has doubled to 200. State funding for charters has increased from roughly $16.5 million in 1997 to more than $734 million.
Approximately 116,300 – about 7% — of the state’s 1.5 million students were enrolled in charters, according to Average Daily Membership figures certified last November.
Rural districts have been especially vulnerable to charter schools. Granville County ranks sixth among the state’s public school districts in percentage of charter school students. The top five are all rural: Halifax (26%); Weldon City (27.1%); Vance (26.9%); North Hampton (26.6%) and Person (20.8%).