Pandemic could be boon or bust for charter school enrollment

Pinecrest Academy Cadence
Pinecrest Academy Cadence in December 2019. (U.S. Department of Education, CC BY 2.0)

Rebecca Garcia has noticed a significant uptick in the number of social media advertisements for alternative schooling: online schools, charter schools, companies selling homeschool curriculum. Such companies have always marketed themselves to parents — they have to since their enrollment isn’t assigned — but amid a pandemic their pitch can be especially trenchant.

It’s bolstered by lingering frustrations many parents had over how traditional public school districts handled statewide closures, and by growing concerns about what the upcoming academic year will look like. Garcia, the president of the Nevada Parent Teachers Association and administrator of a popular Facebook group for parents of Clark County School District students, believes those elements could motivate parents to leave the district.

“I’d be shocked if we didn’t see an enrollment decrease,” she opines. “That trust level (with the community) isn’t there.”

Posts asking questions about homeschooling children have increased in social media groups for parents. Garcia adds that many are awaiting details on reopening guidelines and specific protocols before making any decision about where to send their child come August.

Charter schools have open enrollment (meaning anyone can apply) but the number of students allowed is capped by their authorizing body, which for most in the state is the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority. Many charter schools report having wait lists at the beginning of the school year, and those wait lists are often used to justify expansions down the road.

“This whole thing of parents being so frustrated, I do think that has helped us,” says Renee Fairless, lead principal of Mater Academy, a charter school in Las Vegas. “That makes me sad, but I think it has.”

Fairless, who worked for CCSD for nearly three decades before moving into the charter school world, says the district stifled out-of-the-box thinking whereas the charter and its affiliated “education management organization” Academica embrace it. That’s a common refrain of charter school advocates: that charters can be nimble and innovative in ways districts (especially one of the largest districts in the country) cannot.

The pandemic illustrated the ability to adapt, argues Fairless. When Gov. Steve Sisolak announced on a Saturday in mid-March that schools would be closing, Mater was already working on plans for a switch to distance learning. On Monday, they were reaching out to parents to schedule times for them to pick up the technology they needed to help their student go remote. On Tuesday, teachers were being trained in the videoconferencing platform Zoom.

At that same time, most CCSD teachers and students were in the dark about whether distance learning was even going to happen. A week later, Superintendent Jesus Jara would tell the School Board outright the district could not guarantee education would continue throughout the shutdown, citing large percentages of students with no or limited access to a computer or internet access.

Mater Academy, located in the eastside of Las Vegas, is a Title-1 school — meaning a significant percentage of students live in low-income households. All of its students qualify for free or reduced lunch. On paper, these students come from the same types of families CCSD said it could not guarantee an education to.

“We’ve invested in tech over and over again,” said Fairless, adding that the opposite was true during her time at CCSD. “One of the biggest frustrations was we were teaching in a very tech age but in Title-1 schools you weren’t seeing computers.”

Mater is opening a second location in Las Vegas. The new school hasn’t reached its enrollment cap yet, which is typical for this time of year, but Fairless expects it to, and she suspects many of those new students will have been turned onto the school after hearing about how they were able to support families.

Pinecrest Academy of Northern Nevada, another charter school scheduled to open this August, believes it will have a waitlist by fall. Principal Jami Curtis says parents are comforted to know that pre-pandemic Pinecrest schools (there are already several in Southern Nevada) had blended learning, which made their pivot to fully remote learning earlier. PANN is also offering a telehealth service for students, something that may help set them apart from other schools.

“Parents are very curious on how that all looks, how that shapes what we’re doing,” she added.

Charter School Authority Executive Director Rebecca Feiden says other charter schools have reported being asked by parents if their enrolled student’s sibling or cousin could use the school’s programs or audit the course material since their school wasn’t providing much instruction during the shutdown.

Feiden said the authority hasn’t asked existing schools about enrollment numbers through the pandemic, so only anecdotes exist for gauging whether interest in charter schools will grow as a result of the pandemic.

It may turn out the opposite is true — at least in the short term for schools without established reputations or sister schools to back up their promises.

Four planned charter schools went before the Charter School Board last week. One, Las Vegas Collegiate, announced it was delaying opening due to concerns about keeping kids safe and educated during a pandemic. The other three reported that enrollment was below what they wanted it to be. One conceded that it could possibly jeopardize the opening of their school this August.

Krista Yarberry of Girls Athletic Leadership School told the charter school board they did not receive a single application for enrollment during the statewide shutdown: “Families had other priorities.”

She later added, “I know they want this. They need this. … They’re just in crisis mode.”

Late enrollment is common, added Yarberry, referencing her time at a CCSD elementary school.

Explore Academy Principal Gretchen Larsen said interest in their school was picking up again after slowing down during the shutdown. The school has set a goal to enroll 100 students by the end of June. If it doesn’t, the school’s board of directors may decide to delay opening for a year.

“We believe we’re on track,” added Larsen.

Charter school board member Sheila Moulton expressed optimism that the slowdown would be temporary.

“People have taken a hiatus,” she said after hearing about GALS current enrollment situation. “I think June is key for charters and their enrollment. Parents have had enough of schooling their kids. They want a quality school. Possibly they want one with technology, online and in the classroom.”

The coronavirus pandemic may also affect the opening of charter schools beyond the upcoming 2020-21 academic year. Charter School Authority Director of Authorizing Mark Modrcin told the charter school board that 13 letters of intent to open a charter school had been submitted by March 15 — the deadline for the next cycle of approvals.

“A lot has changed since March 15, 2020,” said Modrcin, adding that “a few” announced their plans to withdraw their application and open at a later date. More details on those proposed charter schools is expected at the charter school board’s June meeting.

April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. April currently serves on the board of the Society of Professional Journalists Las Vegas pro chapter. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and three mutts.