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The case of Haywood’s missing students: a cause-and-effect story

coverHaywood County Schools have been losing students slowly but steadily over the past decade. Despite high academic performance, the school system has 500 fewer students.

Where did they go? Why? Will the decline continue?

Case #1: The homeschool factor
Case #2: Recession drives working families to leave Haywood
Case #3: Private schools only a minor league player
Case #4: New charter school makes a trial run in Haywood
Haywood Schools grapple with enrollment wildcard

Reasons vary, but one result is clear. The dip in Haywood’s student body poses a budget dilemma. State and county dollars are based on head count. Fewer students means less money, even though running the schools hasn’t gotten any cheaper.

And now a new wildcard on the horizon: a charter school slated to open this fall will siphon more money away from the public schools for each student it enrolls.

Ultimately, Haywood school leaders simply don’t know how many students will show up on the first day of school this August, let alone which school they’ll show up at.

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But they can’t simply wait and see. They must forge ahead with crafting a budget, hiring teachers, ordering supplies, mapping the bus routes — hoping for the best but bracing for the worst, with fingers crossed.

This week, The Smoky Mountain News explores the changing school landscape in Haywood County, what to make of it and the financial fallout it creates.


Case #1: The homeschool factor

One down, three to go. Somewhere, behind the tears and hugs, that’s what Kelly Hartzog will be thinking when she sends her oldest son off to college this fall.

She’s homeschooled all four of her children, guiding every step of their education since preschool, and by the time she graduates her youngest 10 years from now, she’ll have dedicated nearly 30 years of her life to being a homeschool mom.

“I love the fact I was able to teach all four of my children to read. You see that light bulb and think ‘I did that,’” said Hartzog, who lives in Haywood County.

Hartzog was a trendsetter in the homeschool arena, forging new ground in an often stigmatized landscape some 13 years ago. She still gets the stereotypes — “Just in the past few months,” she said — but the homeschool world her 9-year-old lives in is far different than the one her oldest went through.

The number of homeschoolers in Haywood County has grown by more than 350 students over the past decade. There’s an estimated 900 homeschool students in Haywood County this year.

That mirrors the increase statewide and nationally. 

• Homeschool students in North Carolina have grown from an estimated 55,000 to 100,000 over the past decade, according to the N.C. Department of Non-Public Education.

• Nationally, homeschoolers have grown from an estimated 1.1 million to 1.8 million over the past decade, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Hartzog has seen the stigma toward homeschooling subside during that time. But it’s hard to say whether the rise in homeschoolers has helped fight the stereotypes, or whether the dissipating stereotypes led to the rise in homeschoolers.

“I think people are seeing it is a real option,” she said.

Ever-expanding resources for homeschoolers have made the venture less daunting to parents. The obvious new resource now compared to a decade ago: an expanding online world.

“The Internet has boomed for homeschooling. You can find complete curriculums and materials for free,” Hartzog said.

Haywood County libraries have a dedicated homeschool section, complete with parent manuals, teaching aids and textbooks. Waynesville Parks and Rec puts on outdoor education programs specifically designed for homeschool kids — during weekdays when other kids are in school.

Last weekend, there was even a homeschool prom, attended by high school homeschoolers from Haywood and Jackson.

Homeschool parents are increasingly forming cooperatives — pitching in to hire teachers in more complex subjects or simply to share resources and do group activities. In Haywood County, Hartzog is part of a homeschool group called Deep Young Academy.

“I think Deep Young can come alongside the families and encourage them to continue,” Hartzog said. “You are coming together and doing things as a group that are more difficult for parents to do at home.”

Once a week, kids take classes that run the gamut from science to foreign language to art.

“It has been helpful for my family for someone else to teach the classes I am not as good at,” Hartzog said. 

Deep Young has tripled in number since it started in 2008.

Homeschooling is more common among elementary grades. As kids age, parents are more likely to move them into a traditional school — especially come middle school. Haywood County Schools has recently crunched data that quantifies that.

“We believe we have students coming back from homeschools, who want to be in public school come middle school,” Nolte said.

Every year, Haywood schools see a jump in the number of sixth-graders countywide compared to the number of fifth-graders the year before.

The jump is measurable — 75 to 100 kids suddenly show up in sixth grade who weren’t part of the fifth-grade crop of students. The sixth-grade bump has been less the past few years than it used to be, however.

“We were gaining an average of 100 students per year coming into middle school. Now it is about 70 students per year,” said Tracy Hargrove, Haywood Schools maintenance director.

It could be more parents are going the distance and deciding to homeschool even into middle and high school.

The rise in homeschoolers hasn’t gone unnoticed by Haywood school leaders. They mailed a survey to homeschool parents a couple of years ago to better understand what was driving the trend.

“We found that most of the things they were frustrated about were things we were frustrated about too, like too many regulations, too much testing,” Nolte said.

The homeschool-to-charter wildcard

A new charter school opening this fall in Haywood County will likely draw from the homeschool pool. But just how many homeschoolers will come out of the woodwork to give the charter school a trial run is one of the many wildcards heading toward August. It could be 10, or it could be 110.

Whatever the number, it will have ramifications on the county’s budget — to the tune of $2,000 for each homeschool student who joins the charter school.

“If there are suddenly large numbers of new students to be educated in Haywood County on the public tab, the public revenues will have to increase to pay for that,” Nolte said.

Charter schools get a cut of county education dollars based on their head count. If a student leaves a traditional public school to attend a charter school, he or she takes a share of the school funding to the charter.

But it’s more complicated when accounting for homeschoolers who enter the mix. If they suddenly appear on the charter school rolls, there was no money previously budgeted for that student, and the school system would have to come up with that student’s allocation out of its own pocket. 

County commissioners saw that as punitive, however, and have agreed to pick up the tab for any homeschoolers who come online with the charter school, rather than the school system taking the hit.

“We wanted to make sure the school system was insulated against that,” County Manager Ira Dove said. 

The county has no idea what kind of tab to expect, however, until August gets here. Only then will the charter school know for sure how many former homeschoolers it’s getting, and in turn, how much the county will have to pony up to cover them.

“I think it is safe to say from the county perspective this is an evolving situation in terms of student funding. We don’t yet know all the ramifications,” County Commissioner Chairman Mark Swanger said.

Homeschoolers are seen as fertile ground for the new charter school to draw from. For their own reasons, homeschool parents have rejected the traditional public schools and are obviously open to alternative education styles.

“We discovered there was a particular increase in the number of children going to homeschooling,” said Ben Butler, the director of the new charter school in Haywood County. 

Whether the charter school will satisfy the homeschool parents it attracts remains to be seen, and will largely depend on what led them to homeschool in the first place.

The motivation behind homeschooling has shifted as the number of homeschoolers has risen. Religion was once one of the main factors among parents who chose to homeschool.

Hartzog said religion seems to be less of a driver among the new generation of homeschoolers, however. 

Data bears that out, according to a 2013 survey of homeschool families by the National Center for Education Statistics. Less than 25 percent of homeschool parents cited religious and moral instruction as their primary reason for homeschooling. Instead, more cited academic reasons, dissatisfaction with the public school environment and simply wanting more time to be with their children.

Homeschoolers in Haywood County*

2014: 913











Case #2: Recession drives working families to leave Haywood

When Eric and Marian Larson finished a two-year stint in the Peace Corp and cast about for a place to land, they had a whole planet to choose from. They were young, didn’t have any kids yet, and while they didn’t have jobs either, the economy was good back in 2003 and work would surely come in time.

“We thought, where do we want to live? Where do we want to start a family? We zeroed in on Western North Carolina,” Marian recounted.

The Larsons soon discovered they would have to invent their own jobs if they wanted to stay in Haywood County. They launched a video production company, which initially did a robust business filming weddings, promotional videos, online marketing spots, travel pieces and video tours of real estate property.

But by 2010, they could no longer make ends meet. So with two young kids in tow and a third on the way, the Larsons moved to Raleigh, where Eric now works for a national IT firm.

“If we had had a livelihood in Haywood County where we were really financially stable, we may still be living there today. But there wasn’t a lot to choose from to make a good living there,” Marian reflected.

The Larsons are one of many recession casualties for Haywood County Schools.

“That’s what happens during a recession, people move to the cities to find jobs,” said Haywood’s Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte. “They go to those economic centers when times are tough.”

At least that’s what school officials suspected. But lately, they’ve wanted to know for sure. 

Enrollment year to year has become increasingly unpredictable, declining by about 500 students over the past decade. That in turn made it hard to know how many teachers to hire at each of the 15 schools for the coming year.

“The biggest influence on our total budget is the number of students we have. We had to try to get a handle on what enrollment might look like, something that would give us a little bit of a predictor,” said Tracy Hargrove, the maintenance director for Haywood Schools. 

So last month, Hargrove tried to crack the elusive enrollment nut. He set out to compare the babies born in a given year to the number of kindergartners five years later.

He started with the Haywood County birth rate — which includes all babies born to parents living in Haywood, regardless of what hospital they were actually born at. Then he fast-forwarded to the number of kindergartners that showed up on the schools’ doorstep five years later.

The results were both fascinating and telling.

During the mid-2000s, more kindergartners showed up each year compared to the babies born here five years prior.

“What you had for a number of years was people moving into the community with young children, so the number that hit kindergarten was larger than the birth rate had been,” Nolte said.

That’s when Haywood County’s real estate, construction and tourism economy was booming and jobs were plentiful.

But the trend reversed starting in 2008.

“After that they didn’t move in. The enrolment was less than the live births. That means residents who had children when they were residing here, five years later were gone,” Nolte said. “That was the impact of the economy on our enrollment. We had fewer students arrive in kindergarten than were born five years previously to residents.”

Over time, that trend took its toll.

“If you have 50 less this year in kindergarten, you have 50 less next year in first grade, and it becomes cumulative,” Hargrove said. Fifty fewer kindergartners every year adds up to 500 missing students over 10 years.

“It’s the cumulative impact,” he said.

SEE ALSO: Tracking Haywood students: from birth to Kindergarten

The numbers are clear, but what’s less clear is why.

“There may be a thousand reasons as to why these numbers are showing up the way they are,” Hargrove said. “What may actually be going on, we don’t know.”

The biggest forces are likely out-migration caused by the economy and the growth in homeschoolers, but a small blip in out-of-county charter school attendance and private schools could also be playing a part.

Figuring out where the students are going is more than an interesting exercise. Only by understanding the root cause can the school system predict whether the trend will continue — or reverse itself.

At first blush, the enrollment enigma may seem an unusual job for the maintenance director to chase down. But with 15 school campuses to look after — leaky faucets to fix, grass to mow, aging roofs to replace, cracked parking lots to patch — Hargrove is highly vested in the monetary impact of declining enrollment.

Many of his costs are fixed. The overhead is the same to keep up the buildings, regardless of how many students are in them.

“A big part of our budget is keeping the lights on and the buildings warm and cool,” Hargrove said.

 “I want to know where we think we are going to be in the future with the number of students, which equates to dollars.”

As the trend settles out, school leaders could be forced to make some unpopular and tough decisions. They could consolidate smaller schools with larger ones to cut down on overhead. They may have to redraw school districts, shuffling around which neighborhoods go to which schools to more evenly distribute students.

But those are questions for another day. The more immediate question is what August’s enrollment will bring. The coming school year could witness the most significant recession-driven enrollment decline yet.

While the recession is over, the birth rate in Haywood County hit a low five years ago. That’s because in 2009, many couples apparently put off getting pregnant. Whether breadwinners were laid off or simply gun-shy about the economy, the result was the same: they held off on starting or expanding their family.

The low pregnancy rate in 2009 meant a low birth rate in 2010, which will now come into play with kindergarten enrollment this coming year.

And it could be a double-whammy. A new charter school is also slated to open this year in Haywood County with up to 48 kindergartners, which may further cut in to public school enrollment.

The babies born to Haywood parents five years ago are only part of the enrollment picture, however.

“It does give us a little bit of an idea what is going on, but what we don’t know is what the red bar is going to do,” Nolte said, pointing to the line on Hargrove’s graph that represents actual kindergartners year-to-year.

Haywood’s quality of life is undeniably appealing to families raising kids — if the parents can land a job here.

Likewise, Haywood County is generally becoming a cooler place for 20- and 30-somethings — judging by the unscientific yet tangible signs like the ever-growing number of breweries, bike paths, live music on the nightlife calendar, restaurants with hummus on the menu and “coexist” bumper stickers.

If they like it here, and decide to start families here, it could reverse declines seen in the past decade.

“I hope you’re right,” said Hargrove.


Case #3: Private schools only a minor league player

There’s plenty of theories over where the AWOL Haywood students have gone, but private schools aren’t one of them.

There are fewer students in private school in Haywood County now than a decade ago, dropping from more than 220 to just 150, according to numbers kept by the N.C. Department of Non-Public Education.

The private school landscape in Haywood was hit by a perfect storm over a five-year span that decimated enrollment.

One factor was obviously the recession. With wages stagnating and jobs hard to come by, fewer families could afford private school tuition. Tuition for Haywood Christian Academy ranges from $5,000 to $6,000 per year.

But private school enrollment in Haywood County had already taken a hit by the time the economy tanked. In 2007, Haywood County’s only private school at the time — Bethel Christian Academy — saw a mass exodus of families split off and form a new private school, Haywood Christian Academy.

While some families stayed the course with Bethel Christian and others went with Haywood Christian, some opted out of private school completely.

In 2005, there were 225 students attending Bethel Christian. But by 2008, there were just 180 attending Bethel and Haywood Christian combined. The number hit a low of 130 in 2011, and has now crept back up some to 150.

Of the two private schools in Haywood, Haywood Christian has emerged as the powerhouse, with 130 K-12 students this year, compared to just 22 at Bethel Christian.

Now that Haywood Christian is established, it has been growing steadily — 15 percent over the last two years, according to Headmaster Blake Stanberry.

Stanberry points to recent academic accreditations the school has pursued to prove it can offer two things at once: Christian values and a high-quality education.

“We want to be an extra quality choice for families that are choosing a Christian education first,” Stanberry said.

Stanberry was quick to commend the quality of Haywood schools, however.

“We have a very strong public school system in Haywood County. Comparatively, Haywood is very strong compared to the rest of the state,” he said.

Stanberry doesn’t anticipate losing any of his students to the new charter school slated to open in Haywood County this fall.

“Charter schools usually have a niche with families looking for a certain type of education,” Stanberry said. “Families who are here with us are looking for that Christian education.”

But the education choices in Haywood are certainly wider than they’ve been before.

“There are all kinds of choices and they bring different cultures,” Stanberry said.

While Bethel Christian is a shadow of its former self, School Administrator Kristen Ledford is upbeat about the future and doesn’t dwell on how much they’ve declined.

“I have inherited what I have inherited, and this is my baby now,” she said.

Ledford focused on the positives: small classes, a moral environment, caring and supportive teachers, a one-on-one personal approach and flexibility.

While enrollment in Haywood’s two private schools is readily known, it’s unclear how many students from Haywood commute to private schools in Buncombe.

There are more than two dozen private schools in Buncombe County. The biggies — Carolina Day School and Asheville Christian Academy — routinely get Haywood students, but even some of the smaller ones like French Broad River Academy, Hanger Hall or The New Classical Academy have had a smattering of Haywood students between them in recent years.

Based on queries made to a handful of private schools in Buncombe County, the number of students traveling to private schools out-of-county appears to be negligible and relatively constant, and thus not a huge impact on the decline in enrollment Haywood schools have witnessed. That could change, though, if Haywood Christian continues its growth trajectory.

Haywood private school enrollment*

2014: 152











*Does not include students from Haywood who attend private schools out-of-county. Between 20 and 60 students from Haywood commute to private schools in Asheville any given year.


Case #4: New charter school makes a trial run in Haywood

Anne Gentry isn’t a picky person. She’s one of the most positive, upbeat, easygoing moms you’ll meet — so easy-going, in fact, she spent a year traveling the country in a camper while homeschooling her kids on the road, the stuff of nightmares for most parents.

It’s that same adventurous spirit that has led Gentry to test the waters of a new charter school, Shining Rock Classical Academy, slated to open in Haywood County this August. To be clear, she isn’t dissatisfied, disgruntled or unhappy with Clyde Elementary, where her youngest son goes now.

“I love Clyde a lot, but we are just going to give it a try,” Gentry said of the new charter school. She likes the idea of a school with more flexibility, less rigidity and outside-the-box approaches.

“The charter school says they are going to try to do more hands-on outside the classroom. I believe boys especially need more experiential learning,” Gentry said.

She’s also eager to be part of a school family of like-minded, vested parents.

“Since you have to make an effort to sign up, maybe the parents are just a little more involved in the education of their kids,” Gentry said.

Meanwhile, Haywood school officials haven’t quite figured out how to respond to parents who claim they are perfectly happy with their current school yet are curious enough to try the new charter school anyway.

They’ve obstinately refused to say anything negative about the charter school and stuck to their party line: simply playing up what’s good about Haywood schools rather than putting the charter school down.

They certainly have plenty there to brag about. Haywood is 15th in test scores out of 115 school districts statewide.

“We are very, very proud of this,” Superintendent Anne Garrett said. “We outperformed 87 percent of the other school districts in the state.”

Even as preliminary enrollment numbers for the charter school have inched past the 300 mark — threatening to siphon as much as $2 million away from Haywood schools in the coming year — they’ve stayed on message.

“We are going to do what we have always done, which is rigorous standards, high performance and opportunities for students,” Garrett said. “We have a great school system where our students can be successful in academics, sports, cultural arts and vocations.”

When asked point-blank if he thought Haywood County Schools are the best choice, Assistant Superintendent Bill Nolte eventually acquiesced, however.

“I believe we are the best overall choice. We have the performance and the extra-curricular activities that we believe make us the best choice,” Nolte said.

Mike Murray, superintendent of Jackson County Schools, could offer Haywood some pointers as they sort out what their rhetoric will be.

Jackson County has been operating in a charter school landscape for more than a decade. About 250 students from Jackson County go to charter schools — about 150 to Summit Charter in Cashiers and 100 to Mountain Discovery in Bryson City.

Murray, like his Haywood counterparts, won’t be caught saying anything outright negative about the charter schools in his backyard.

“I am not saying I totally embrace them, but we do not have an antagonistic relationship with our competition,” Murray said. 

However, he’s far more forthright and unabashed in articulating why he thinks Jackson County public schools rise to the top.

“Without being ugly about it, I encourage everyone in our organization to make sure we are the choice for residents of Jackson County,” Murray said.

And Haywood shouldn’t be afraid to do the same.

“They will have to be more proactive or they will be damaged,” Murray said.

Flanked by two charter schools, Murray’s lens has evolved over time.

“When I get up in front of parents now, I thank them. I never used to do that. They do have choices and I say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to teach your child,’” said Murray, who has seven children of his own.

He also implores teachers to see themselves as advocates for the school system, and to work through issues with disgruntled parents who threaten to pull out of the public school system.

“Some just want something different, but some get mad at us. The day someone says, ‘I am going to pull my kid out and go somewhere else,’ we need to explain why our school system is better. I am going to say, ‘Tell me why we have offended you and let’s talk about how we can best teach your child,’” Murray said. “We don’t want to say, ‘OK, if that’s how you feel just take your kid on.’”

So far, interest in Shining Rock charter school is highest among kindergarten parents. More than 65 prospective kindergarteners have expressed interest, compared to about 40 per grade in first through sixth grades.

Ben Butler, director of Shining Rock Classical Academy, postulated that parents are less likely to try something new once they their kids are already established at a school.

“I don’t think it is a matter of being satisfied or dissatisfied,” Butler said. “My opinion is they get into a place and they are comfortable with that. I have spoken to parents that say, ‘I am very happy with my school in Haywood County,’ and I say, ‘Good, it sounds like that is a good choice for you.’”

Charter schools are a new paradigm in the Haywood school landscape. Shining Rock will be the first charter school located in Haywood. While a few students from Haywood have gone to charter schools in nearby Buncombe or Swain counties, you could always count them on one hand.

This past year, however, kids commuting out of Haywood to charter schools jumped up to 20 kids. The increase is due in part to more charter schools now coming on the scene in Asheville, but there are also a couple students from Haywood attending far-away charter schools designed for troubled, abused or at-risk students.

A show of hands

Butler can’t say for sure how many students will show up to Shining Rock on the first day of school. He only knows how many have indicated they’ll come. But it’s free to put your name on the list as a placeholder. There’s no enrollment fee and there’s no penalty if you decide not to go after all.

The new charter school is hoping to get 325 students spanning kindergarten to sixth grade by opening day in August. So far, 314 have expressed interest.

If the numbers hold, it could be the biggest blow yet to Haywood’s declining public school population.

It’s simply hard to know until it actually opens — and perhaps not even then. Some parents who start the year there may decide they don’t like it after all and pull out, while other parents decide to give it a try as the year progresses.

Butler said he thinks those who have put their name on the list so far will follow through. Based on the experience of other charter schools, about 85 percent who put their name on the list during enrollment will actually attend, Butler said.

Meanwhile, he expects to pick up additional students as opening day approaches, likely replacing any who fall off the list.

Haywood school leaders have a go-to PowerPoint that highlighs their high performance compared to other school systems in the state and region. But a new slide has made its way in the mix lately: one that shows how Haywood schools stack up against charter schools in the state, not just other traditional public schools.

It’s subtle but not unnoticed, based on comments from County Commissioner Kevin Ensley at a school workshop this month after seeing the slide flash by.

“I noticed that Haywood County schools performed higher on average than the charter schools in North Carolina,” Ensley said.

But that’s not necessarily a fair assessment, according to Butler.

“Charter schools tend to operate on the periphery, so we tend to operate in challenging inner city areas and rural areas,” Butler said. 

Butler said it would be fairer to compare Haywood’s performance against the select group of charter schools that are in the same chain as Shining Rock, which is part of the Challenge Foundation charter school franchise.

“I think we will show very well against Haywood County Schools in terms of test scores,” Butler said.

But Butler condemned test scores at the same time.

“I think everyone will agree that test scores are a blunt instrument. They are the ocean we swim in, but I don’t think anyone is satisfied with those as a measure,” he said.

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