Charter School, Magnet School, Traditional School: All You Need to Know About Wake County Schools - Harmony Realty Triangle
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The most common questions I get when helping people find a new home are about schools. Schools in the Triangle are a bit different than other places. We have a lot of options. 

Types of Schools

Parents can choose the neighborhood school, a public magnet school, a public charter school or tuition funded private schools. Home schools are also popular in North Carolina, even outpacing private school growth. In order to choose the best school, it helps to understand the difference between the different options available.

Charter School

A Charter School is paid for through public funding but operationally speaking behaves more like a private school. That doesn’t mean that they don’t have oversight from the Department of Public Education, it just means that their organizational structure is a little different.

Charter schools can be founded by parents in the community who see a need for a particular educational model, such as a Montessori Charter like Sterling Montessori in Morrisville. Or a charter can be founded by a for-profit corporation such as Cardinal Charter Academy in Cary.

What you need to know about charter schools:

Charter Schools are free to develop their own curriculum and do not have to follow the state adopted Common Core Curriculum however, they are held to the same accountability standards.

  • Admission is granted to students based on lottery. The lottery process usually begins in January or February of the preceding school year. Check individual school websites for specific instructions. Scroll down for a link to a list of all NC Charter Schools.
  • Teacher Licensure - Charter Schools have greater flexibility in teacher licensure. Only 50% of their faculty is required to have teacher licensure. This allows charters to hire talented scientists, mathematicians and writers, for example, who have been successful in the public sector but have not pursued teacher licensure.
  • School Tours - Most charter schools offer tours starting in November of the preceding school year. Again, check individual websites (below) for information about school tours.
    • Special Needs Students - As a publicly funded school, charter schools must provide equal access to all students, such as students with special needs or disability. For more information about students with special needs, see here and here
  • Magnet School

    Unlike a Charter School, A Magnet school is a traditional public school that follows the state mandated Common Core Curriculum. The mission of Wake County Magnet Schools is to reduce concentrations of poverty, create more diverse environments and increase academic success in schools with a lower socioeconomic status.

    In order to accomplish that mission, in addition to the state curriculum, Magnet schools have a particular focus or learning style. For example, Kingswood Elementary is a Montessori Magnet. Combs Elementary  (voted #1 Magnet School in America) is a Leadership school modeled on Steven Covey’s Seven Habits. Jeffreys Grove Elementary offers language immersion. And Enloe High is a Gifted and Talented/International Baccalaureate School.

    You can find a complete list of Wake County Magnet Schools here.

    What you Need to Know About Magnet Schools

      • Funding - Magnets receive additional funding to support their focus with additional staff and supplies.
      • Base School Registration - If your child has never registered in a public school in the county in which your desired magnet exists, you must register your student in that county in order to apply for the magnet.
      • Who is Eligible - You must live in the county of your desired Magnet school. This is not the case for Charter schools, where you must only live in the state of NC.
      • Magnet Choices - You will be asked to choose several magnet options and rank them in order of desirability. Magnets are competitive and you won’t always get your top choice.
      • Pre-school Option - Kingswood Elementary has a for profit preschool that, if your child attends, will move them to the top of the list for enrollment into Kindergarten at Kingswood. (Sterling Montessori Charter also has this option.) You can apply to Kingswood PreK here.
      • Neighborhood Priority - Different schools have different priorities for enrollment. Check here to see if your address will receive high priority for enrollment.
      • Transportation is not standardized across magnet schools. Some schools will provide neighborhood bussing, just like your traditional school assignment. But more frequently, you will have the option of either Express Bussing (delivering your child to a central location where the bus will meet for pickup) or parent provided transportation. To find out what your options are, enter your address to view your base assignment, then click on Magnet Options to see the transportation options for each school.

    Magnet Schools Eligibility

    Some people believe that it is so difficult to get into a Magnet School that it isn't worth the attempts. That is actually not true, although acceptance does have something to do with where you live. because the purpose of magnet schools is to create economic diversity in neighborhoods with a low socio-economic profile, households in higher socio-economic brackets are given priority. Wake County applies a priority rating to every home in the district. If your priority is high, you have a much better chance of getting into the school. Check here for your priority rating.

    Traditional School

    Most people who refer to traditional schools, mean the neighborhood public school that their home is zoned to. Since magnet schools are traditional public schools with a magnet designation, your neighborhood school might be a magnet school. 

    Charter schools are never zoned to neighborhoods, though. All students in charter schools must apply to get in, even if they live next door.  No matter which school you choose, the quality of the school is more dependent upon the leadership and their ability to hire and retain quality teachers than it is to any one model. Once you understand the differences in the school models, I always recommend the best way to choose is to visit the school, talk to the principal and teachers, observe students in their natural environment and read online reviews at places like Great Schools.

    Calendar Options - Year Round, Traditional, Adjusted Year-Round

    In addition to the choices Wake County Parents have with the type of school, you are also offered calendar options. If you go to the page where you can search your address for your base school and enter your address, you will see a page that looks like this:

    wake county schools

    Click on the link that says "VIEW APPLICATION SCHOOLS" to see your magnet and calendar options. 

    In parentheses next to your school options, you will see an abbreviation for the type of calendar used by each school. In the image above, you can see each of my base options are Traditional Calendar, because the abbreviation (Trad) is next to the name of each school. Note the following calendar abbreviations:

    (Trad) - Traditional Calendar

    (YR) Year Round Calendar - There are four different tracks for year rounds. Year round school, doesn't mean the kids go to school all the time. Rather than a long 12 week break in the summer, they attend school for 6 weeks and then get a 3 week break. This allows them to keep the school building in constant use, saving money on the cost of building more school buildings. It makes sense, in that regard because since school is in session for 180 days per year, buildings really do lie empty for literally half the school year.

    (Mod) Modified Year Round Calendar - (If you can make this one work, grab it!! It is the best schedule ever!) The Modified calendar has a shortened summer, about 8 weeks, and the students receive a 2 week break after every 9 week session. My husband is a teacher and he worked in a modified calendar school. I really believe it is the best option for student and teacher productivity. Having a 2 week break every quarter is so refreshing! Not to mention that you are able to take vacations when other people are still in school, avoiding the summertime crowds and heat. Hello NC mountains in October!!

    You can find all the Wake County Calendars here.

    Early College Schools

    There is one more calendar option: Early College. These schools are designed to give students the opportunity to graduate high school in 5 years with 2 years of college completed...for free. The schools team up with local colleges to allow students to take college level coursework while in high school. For that reason, the schedule is synced to the colleges they are connected to.

    You can find links and information about the 6 Early College High Schools here.

    Ready to start your search for a new home? You can search the entire MLS at Wake County Real Estate Search

    But Wait!

    Before you start your search, you need to understand one more thing about Wake County Schools. Just because you buy a home in a particular school zone, that doesn't mean you'll go to your base school.

    Wait...what???

    School Capping


    Every home in Wake County is zoned to one particular public school and it will likely be near where you live. However, due to the tremendous growth in the Triangle over the last 10-15 years, schools in the most popular districts frequently have enrollment caps. That means that even if you move into your desired school district, you may be assigned to an overflow school. Here is a list of capped schools for the upcoming school year.

    School capping can be a frustrating problem for new families moving into the area. Moving is a stressful time and throwing in that level of uncertainty with something as important as your child’s education can be scary.

    However, there is often an inordinate amount of weight given to getting into the “best” schools. As a mother of four children, I have had students in different Wake County Schools from Elementary to High School.  I can definitely attest that the most popular school districts are not popular because they are better than the other schools. There are great schools throughout Wake County. 

    Looking for a home in a particular school zone? Use the Tabs below to find homes for sale by Elementary , Middle and High School!

    • Elementary SChools
    • Middle Schools
    • High Schools

    About the Author Ellen Pitts

    Ellen is the founder of Harmony Realty, a socially conscious realty company. Ellen believes in empowering her clients through education and open communication. Ellen is a number-cruncher at heart and takes great pleasure in following and analyzing the trends of the housing industry. She loves communicating the big picture to her clients and helping them to understand how the market affects their sale or purchase. Her honest and down-to-earth approach allows her clients to make informed and intelligent decisions to get the most out of their offers and negotiations.

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