Charter School, Magnet School, Traditional School: What is the Difference?

difference between charter and magnet school

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. 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.

Schools: What is the Difference Between a Charter School & Magnet & Traditional?

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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Most charter schools offer tours starting in November of the preceding school year.
  • As a publicly funded school, charter schools must provide equal access to all students, such as students with special needs or disability.

Click here for a list of NC Charter Schools by County.

Magnet Schools

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

  • Magnets receive additional funding to support their focus with additional staff and supplies.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Different schools have different priorities for enrollment. Check here to see if your address will receive high priority for enrollment.

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.

Looking for a home in a particular school zone? Use the graph below to find homes zoned to your school of choice!

Search by Elementary School

Abbots CreekGreen HopePleasant Grove
AdamsHarris CreekPleasant Union
Alston RidgeHerbert AkinsPowell
AversboroHeritageRand Road
Bailywick RoadHighcroftReedy Creek
BallentineHilburnRiver Bend
BanksHodge RoadRolesville
BarwellHolly GroveRoot
BaucomHolly Ridge RoadSalem
BeaverdamHolly SpringsSanford Creek
BrentwoodJeffreys GroveStough
BriarcliffJones DairySwift Creek
Brier CreekJoynerSycamore Creek
BrooksKingswoodTimber Drive
BuggKnightdaleTurner Creek
CarverLake MyraVance
CaryLaurel ParkVandora Springs
Cedar ForkLead MineWake Forest
ConnLincoln HeightsWakelon
Creech RoadLockhartWalnut Creek
Davis DriveLynn RoadWashington
DillardMiddle CreekWeatherstone
DurantMills ParkWest Lake
East GarnerMorrisvilleWhite Oak
Farmington WoodsNorth RidgeWilburn
Forest PinesNorthwoodsWildwood Forest
ForestvilleOak GroveWiley
Fox RoadOakviewWillow Springs
FullerOldsYates Mill
Fuquay-VarinaOlive ChapelYork
GreenPenny RoadZebulon

Search by Middle School

ApexEast WakeNorth Garner
CarnageFuquay-VarinaReedy Creek
CentennialHolly GroveSalem
DanielsHolly RidgeWake Forest
Davis DriveLeesville RoadWakefield
Dillard DriveLigonWendell
Durant RoadLufkin RoadWest Cary
East CaryMartinWest Lake
East GarnerMills ParkWest Millbrook
East MillbrookMoore SquareZebulon

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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