Buncombe County Schools enrollment drops as nontraditional options grow

Jeremy Braketa of Carolina Day School
OUT OF THE BOX: Carolina Day School teacher Jeremy Braketa leads a discussion with eighth grade students in a woodland classroom, one of the approaches the private school took to resume in-person instruction before the Buncombe County system. Photo courtesy of Carolina Day School

A hike through the woods, a backyard fort, a sewing machine positioned beneath alphabet wall hangings, a community table where children ages 2-11 read and sing together: All look more like play than class. But Andrea Olson believes learning can take place in each of those settings. The Asheville mother of five switched to home schooling during the 2020-21 school year and says she’ll never send her kids back to public school.

“Home schooling has simplified things for me,” says Olson, whose children previously attended both Asheville city and Buncombe County schools. “I wouldn’t trade this peaceful lifestyle for the hustle-bustle of public school — waking up early, dealing with teachers and grades and conferences and schools being shut down and opened up — ever.”

Enrollment in home schooling and other alternatives to public education, such as private, parochial and charter schools, has been on the rise in Buncombe County over the past decade. According to the N.C. Department of Administration, 1,829 home schools served approximately 2,920 Buncombe students in the 2011-12 school term; 3,997 county home schools with roughly 6,013 students were recorded for the 2020-21 school year, an enrollment increase of nearly 106%.

Enrollment in Buncombe’s charter schools has similarly boomed, rising over 233% from 680 in 2011-12 to 2,270 in 2019-20 (the latest year for which data is available). The county’s private and parochial schools, which are combined in state statistics, increased enrollment by a more gradual 19% over the same period, from 3,139 to 3,752.

The rate of change in county home schooling was particularly sharp last school year, as schools adopted virtual learning in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and many parents had to work from home. NCDOA data shows that Buncombe home school students increased by nearly 21% from 2019-20 to 2020-21.

And last school year, Buncombe County Schools saw an average daily membership drop of over 1,500 students, about 6.4% from its 2019-20 figure of 23,712, with nearly 450 students moving to home schools. (ADM at Asheville City Schools increased by 25 students, or roughly 0.6%, from 2019-20 to 2020-21.) “The pandemic disruptions affected families in different ways, and they made schooling choices based on their child’s needs at the time,” says BCS spokesperson Stacia Harris.

Screened out

Buncombe County Schools classroom
BACK AT IT: Buncombe County Schools resumed in-person instruction with mandatory masking in March, an approach the system continues to take for the 2021-22 school year. Photo courtesy of BCS

All public school classes met 100% virtually at the start of the pandemic. David Thompson, BCS director of student services, says that the system used numerous strategies to keep students engaged when they weren’t coming to the classroom.

School staff made home visits to provide packets of work from teachers, internet hot spots and wellness checks. Teachers and counselors offered virtual social-emotional skills lessons and personal sessions. Students checked in through social media and regular virtual club meetings, while families were connected with community organizations that could provide basic needs such as food and clothing.

But although BCS eventually transitioned to a hybrid model (two days of in-person instruction and three days of remote) in September 2020 and returned to full-time, in-person instruction in March, Thompson acknowledges that the disruption harmed many children. “Financial difficulty, unemployment, isolation in remote parts of the county and lack of social interaction and community support systems,” he says, led some students to engage minimally in virtual learning. The U.S. Department of Education reports that over 600 BCS students are homeless, and over 5,000 live in poverty.

Early return to full-time, in-person instruction, with practices in place to protect students and staff, motivated some parents to transfer their students out of public schools. “What we’re hearing from many families who come to us is that they want their children to be in school, but they want to know that the school also cares about the health and well-being of their children and their children’s teachers,” says Sarah Goldstein, director of marketing communications at the private Carolina Day School.

Andrea Olson family
SCHOOL YARD: The children of home-schooling Asheville mother Andrea Olson get time for free outdoor play in addition to structured lessons. Photo courtesy of Olson

CDS students in grades pre-K-8 returned to full-time, in-person instruction in August 2020, while high school students transitioned from hybrid instruction to full-time, in-person classes in April. Many other area private and parochial schools, including Asheville Catholic School and The New Classical Academy, also gave students a full-time, in-person option before public schools did.

To make in-person learning possible at CDS, Goldstein explains, “We developed a stringent health and safety plan that included masks, increased ventilation and distancing, as well as protocols for parent communication and quarantine when exposures did occur.” With an average student-to-teacher ratio of 7-to-1 — less than half of the average for BCS — and a campus surrounded by forest land, the school was also able to convert outdoor spaces into classrooms, further reducing the risk of coronavirus transmission.

Olson similarly says her decision to home-school was driven by a desire to avoid virtual learning. “When COVID hit, and my daughter came home from kindergarten only seven months after beginning, our household simply couldn’t take the iPad’s presence,” she says.

Now, Olson says, her children’s learning is more grounded in the physical world, with regular activities including hikes, crafts and free outdoor play.

“We are all more deeply connected,” she says. “And they’re learning things I wish I’d known when I graduated, like how to use a sewing machine, how to build and fix things, and how to cook. The biggest benefit is that they all have that spark for learning that children are born with that public school tends to stifle out of them.”


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8 thoughts on “Buncombe County Schools enrollment drops as nontraditional options grow

  1. Brooke Heaton

    A bill in the NCGA (HB400) proposes to strictly district the Buncombe County Board of Education, likely adding fuel to this exodus. This is the same bill that will make the Asheville City School Board an elected school board, potentially increasing enrollment in ACS. Quite a poison pill caused by a Chuck Edwards amendment that pits one district against the other and may be decisive for those who have considered an ACS BCS merger. That becomes unthinkable if the bill passes.

  2. pedersen

    When parents withdraw their children from the public schools and enroll them at private or charter schools, they are affectively segregating the school system. Charter schools-though free- do not provide transportation or free and reduced breakfast/lunch. Non-secular private schools tend to have tuitions that are out of reach of many families. For example The tuition at Carolina day school ranges from $17,850 – $42,950 https://www.carolinaday.org/admission/tuition
    Even homeschooling children requires financial sacrifice. Children who come from a family headed by a single parent, or have low to moderate incomes simply can’t afford the alternatives.
    Indeed, even if it is not the desired outcome, it results in racial and financial segregation. Just a few days ago the ACT Published a story called
    “NC charter schools remain wealthier, whiter than local districts.” https://www.google.com/amp/s/amp.citizen-times.com/amp/7912897002
    As a BCS public school teacher myself, I understand the frustrations from parents. But if you have the resources I suggest that you make an effort to work within our public school system. Make it better. It certainly doesn’t help when articles such as this Mountain Xpress one promote charter/private/homeschool in glowing terms leaving the public school system by the side of the road…

    • Lauren

      Just noting: Franklin School of Innovation does provide bus services and does provide lunches to families that apply to the program. There are some real challenges that continue to be addressed, but please don’t say these services don’t exist at our local charter schools.

    • indy499

      Most parents who seek alternatives to public schools do so for the betterment of their children. You indirectly acknowledge the inferiority of the public schools, essentially asking parents to stay with public schools and make them better. That doesn’t work for me or many people. The notion of public schools changing at all, much less for the better, is inconceivable.

      I’d pay whatever I could afford to instruct my kids directly or in an appropriate private school to avoid the pc wokeness infesting this society and being nurtured in public school.

  3. WNC

    As of 2018-2019, 20% of K-12 students (1 out of 5) didn’t attend traditional public school. So now may be approaching 25%.
    There are several reasons but one at the top of list is the complete push of liberal and socialist agenda by national teachers unions (members of the NC association of educators have been leaving In bunches for several years)
    The lack of knowing who should attend the girls locker room
    and who should attend the boys locker room in the North Carolina school system is a definite drain. This locker room/bath room problem could cause enough additional students to leave schools in Buncombe county to create a surplus of teachers in a short amount of time. Offending a lot of customers to cater to a few isn’t a good business plan for longevity.

    • luther blissett

      “one at the top of list is the complete push of liberal and socialist agenda by national teachers unions”

      Is any of that true, though? Because it sounds a lot like you just made that stuff up based on the Facebook posts you read when you’re not reading the ones about horse paste.

      I know a lot of bright and well-adjusted people who were homeschooled, but I’m reminded that Madison Cawthorn was homeschooled every time he opens his mouth. “School choice” is always “choice for me and not for thee” — dictated by people who are in a position to impose those choices — and there is no better way to indoctrinate children than to educate them in a vacuum of your own choosing. (You can tell who was taught to drive by their parents, and you can tell who was taught to learn by their parents.)

      • WNC

        I don’t use Facebook (actually don’t even have an account) but sounds like you have experience on it. Maybe you should change your friend group on Facebook for better info. I don’t hold it against your parents because you have driven off the road with your conclusion.
        I also understand why you deflect and digress from starting to maybe defend National Teachers Unions to throw rocks toward what kind of pupil Madison Cawthorn is/was!
        I wouldn’t uphold Madison Cawthorns wreckless statements anymore than I would uphold the wreckless, careless, forgetful, extremely misguided statement’s of President Biden or VP Harris.
        Everyone has a bad game on occasions, I guess this was your day.

    • C-Law

      Good points WNC.

      Looks like you triggered one of leftists here based on the down-vote. Ha! They’re so easy to manipulate it’s almost not fair. Almost takes the fun out of it…almost. :)

      But you’re right. Allowing the Fabians and Bolsheviks to infect our education system certainly plays the biggest role in parents deciding to go “Galt” with the government-run schools.

      As far as quality…all you have to do is observe where the members of The Big Club send their kids to school. Tells you everything you ever needed to know about the scam…

      George Carlin always said it best—

      “But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason that it will never, ever, ever be fixed. It’s never gonna get any better. Don’t look for it. Be happy with what you got. Because the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the real owners, the big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions. Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought and paid for the senate, the congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls. They spend billions of dollars every year lobbying, lobbying, to get what they want. Well, we know what they want. They want more for themselves and less for everybody else, but I’ll tell you what they don’t want: They don’t want a population of citizens capable of critical thinking. They don’t want well informed, well educated people capable of critical thinking. They’re not interested in that. That doesn’t help them. Thats against their interests. Thats right. They don’t want people who are smart enough to sit around a kitchen table to figure out how badly they’re getting ****ED by a system that threw them overboard 30 ****ING years ago. They don’t want that. You know what they want? They want obedient (wear that mask!…get your shots!) workers. Obedient (wear that mask!…get your shots!) workers. People who are just smart enough to run the machines and do the paperwork, and just dumb enough to passively accept all these increasingly shittier jobs with the lower pay, the longer hours, the reduced benefits…and you know something? They’ll get it. They’ll get it all from you, sooner or later, ’cause they own this ****ING place. It’s a big club, and you ain’t in it. You and I are not in the big club.”

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