Editor’s note: This is part one of a five-part series looking at school choice and the options available to North Carolina parents. Part two will appear in Monday’s edition of The Daily News.
Education isn’t one-size-fits-all.
A learning environment that works well for one child may not work as well for another.
ZECA School of Arts and Technology founder Stacey Owens-Howard said it doesn’t mean that one school or one method of learning is necessarily better than the other; just that they are different. As an educator and a parent who saw one of her children struggle in a traditional school setting, she said the goal is finding what is best for the child’s success.
Owens-Howard started Onslow County’s only public charter school to provide another option for area students.
“It’s not about traditional schools are bad and alternative schools are better. It’s not about that. It’s about having the option as a parent to say my child is interested in technology and the arts so here’s a setting that will enhance that or my child is doing well with one of the magnet schools the county has in terms of science and math. It’s about choice,” Owens-Howard said.
ZECA was among the schools across the country to participate in National School Choice Week, which was celebrated Jan. 22-28 with school tours, rallies and other events to bring attention to the educational options available to families.
National School Choice Week President Andrew Campanella said the nonpartisan, nonpolitical public awareness effort was started in 2011 as a way to highlight the effective educational options available for every child in a positive way.
“When it comes to education, we want to empower parents so they can choose the best educational environment for their individual child,” Campanella said.
The initiative spotlights options including traditional public schools, public charter schools, magnet schools, online learning, private schools, and homeschooling.
Onslow County has each of these options available through individual schools or, in some cases, multiple options within the same school or school district.
The Onslow County Schools public school system includes 37 schools with a total enrollment of more than 26,000 students. As a military community, Onslow County also includes Camp Lejeune District Schools aboard Camp Lejeune and New River.
Within Onslow County Schools there are three magnet schools -- Clyde Erwin Elementary Magnet School of International Studies and Cultural Arts; Northwoods Elementary Magnet School of Technology and Innovation and New Bridge Middle School with a focus on Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics.
The school system also offers online learning opportunities and this month launched its new Onslow Virtual Academy. Next year it will open an early college high school.
Outside of the public school system, ZECA charter school is a public school of choice authorized by the state Board of Education but run by an independent board of directors.
Onslow County is also home to 15 private schools, ranging in enrollment from six to more than 200 students, with some only serving elementary and middle grades and others providing education through high school.
Infant of Prague Catholic School is the county’s oldest private school and joins Jacksonville Christian Academy, Liberty Christian Academy in Richlands and Living Water Christian School in Jacksonville among the largest private schools offered in the county.
While nearly all of the private schools in Onslow County have a religious affiliation, the county education options also include a Montessori school, Montessori Children’s School in Jacksonville.
According to the North Carolina Division of Non-Public Education there are currently more than 67,000 home schools and 720 conventional private schools in the state.
Onslow County also has the largest number of home schools in the area, with 1,477 home schools operating in the county during the 2015-2016 school year, according to the division. Carteret County followed with 753 home schools, Duplin County with 243 and Jones County with 111 home schools.
Campanella said National School Choice Week is held in January to highlight school options during the time of year when parents need to start thinking about the next school year and the choices available so that they can gather information and register or enroll as needed.
It is also a chance to look at areas of school choice that may be lacking.
While Onslow County has many offerings, North Carolina does not provide for public school open enrollment, which allows parents to choose any traditional public school regardless of their location, either within their home school district or outside the district.
Onslow County Board of Education Chairwoman Pam Thomas, who worked as a coach, teacher and supervisor for Onslow County Schools for 35 years, said the issue of open enrollment has been discussed periodically as it has been mentioned at the state level but it is a complex issue that raises questions such as handling transportation or setting enrollment limits at schools and other parameters.
Thomas said Onslow County Schools is fortunate to have a wide variety of options within its school district that they are able to meet the needs and interests of an equally varied student population.
The school system includes expansive Career and Technical Education offerings, from agriculture and trades to health occupations; a variety of academies; many technology and STEM offerings; online learning options and a global education program that has received state recognition.
“I think we really are providing a lot of options to meet the needs of every type of students in the public school system,” Thomas.
Still, Thomas believes in school choice.
“I do believe it is up to parents to decide what is best for their child,” she said.
Campanella said there has been a trend toward more online learning along with customization, tailoring a child’s learning experience to their unique interests and needs. Families may continue to choose a traditional public school and then augment a child’s education with advanced classes or dual enrollment at a community college.
The more the options available, the better able parents are to make choices about the child’s education.
“School choice is simply about pairing kids with the schools that best meet their needs,” Campanella said.