ELIZABETHTOWN — Schools of choice are gaining in popularity, and Bladen County is joining the national trend, with more families than ever exercising their right to public alternatives.
In a 2010 essay on New York City’s education system, authors Howard Bloom, Saskia Thompson and Rebecca Unterman coined the phrase “school of choice” to refer to non-selective schools offered as alternatives to traditional education.
Since it was introduced, the phrase and the idea have caught on. “School of choice” has morphed into a right, a societal demand even, for all people to have options, an advantage only previously available to parents who could afford to send family members to private schools or stay at home to educate children themselves.
By the numbers
In Bladen County, more parents than ever are exercising their ability to choose. The downward trend in enrollment hasn’t just occurred recently, however. Despite a 18.5 percent increase in county population from 1950 to 2010 — that, according to U.S. Census data — the number of students enrolled in Bladen County Schools continues to decrease.
The following are indicative of the steady drop in enrollment — the year, followed by the average daily membership of Bladen County Schools.
— 1950 … 9,967 students
— 1965 … 7,726 students
— 1980 … 6,830 students
— 1990 … 5,786 students
— 2000 … 5,642 students
— 2005 … 5,516 students
— 2010 … 5,093 students
— 2015 … 4,621 students
— 2016 … 4,511 students
— 2017 … 4,248 students
Overall, since 1950, the number of students being educated by the district has dropped 57.4 percent. When comparing the last 14 years, the system has seen a decrease of 25.5 percent, roughly 1/3 of it in the last two years alone.
While some loss must be the result of families having fewer children and an aging Baby Boomer population accounting for a large percentage of the increasing population, as well as a host of other possibilities, at least part of the decrease in the last decade must be attributed to school choice. Bladen County families are, in fact, seeking alternatives.
“We think more and more people are realizing they can do a better job educating their own children than anyone else can,” said Spencer Mason, executive office manager and policy director for North Carolinians for Home Education, the state’s largest homeschooling advocacy group.
Spencer’s comments came in the wake of a recent report by the N.C. Division of Non-Public Education revealing a 7.3 percent increase in homeschooling in Bladen County last year, translating into nearly 700 students being taught in Mother County homes in the 2016-17 school year. During the last five years, home schools in Bladen County have been increasing, on average, 14.9 percent each year.
“We’re … the fastest growing method of educating kids in the state,” Mason said.
While people like Mason and those he represents have chosen home education, a plethora of other alternatives exist, including charter schools.
“The charter school’s design is to eliminate barriers to access,” said Kate Alice Dunaway, executive director for the Emereau Foundation, the organization behind Bladen County’s newest school of choice.
Emereau: Bladen opened this academic year with more than 300 students, at least some of whom were responsible for the 5.8 percent decrease in enrollment Bladen County Schools saw this academic year. The other charter school in Bladen County is Paul R. Brown Leadership Academy, which opened in 2014 and currently has approximately 200 students.
In addition to home schools and charter schools, other options available in Bladen County are magnet schools, (which serve a specialized function like science, technology, or art, but are not open to everyone; Bladen County’s only magnet school is Clarkton School of Discovery) vouchers (which allow students to use state funds to attend private school), Virtual Public School (online public education), and private education.
Regardless of where the students are going, the decrease in enrollment is causing problems for the district and its leaders. Faced with aging facilities — the average age for the schools in the Bladen County district is 59 years — the Board of Education is in the midst of conversations about how to deal with decaying or outdated schools at the same time it faces lower-than-ever numbers of students.
Complicating matters is determining whether the trend will continue. Emereau’s charter states it expects to add roughly 130 students each year until 2023, when its enrollment will reach 1,100, approximately 800 more than its current enrollment. If homeschooling trends hold true, in the same amount of time, 908 students could make the move to home education.
Regardless of what Bladen County families are tending to do in education, district leaders remain adamant about one thing — the quality of their service.
“If there’s anybody who can do what we do — with the same funding, regulations, and so forth — and do it better, we’ll be happy to listen to them,” Bladen County Schools Superintendent Robert Taylor said recently. “We still believe we’re the best, most efficient way to educate tomorrow’s leaders.”
Chrysta Carroll can be reached by calling 910-862-4163 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.