South Carolina charter school enrollment continues to grow after pandemic surge

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FLORENCE, SC (WBTW) — South Carolina’s public charter schools continue to build on the momentum gained during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to data from the state Department of Education.

According to the South Carolina Department of Education, 25,873 students were enrolled in charter schools in South Carolina for the 2017-2018 school year. This figure rose to 30,764 for 2019-20, before climbing to 39,523 in 2020-21. This fall, it jumped again, reaching 41,572 students.

The increase was mostly attributed to parents turning to schools as districts moved their classrooms online. Some charters had different approaches and had been running virtual classrooms for years, making them well-equipped to teach students online.

According to Kevin Mason, acting executive director of the Public Charter School Alliance of South Carolina, there has been much discussion about whether the boost was simply related to the pandemic. However, it seems that parents are keeping their children enrolled, even after the initial wave.

“We were very happy to see that, no, those numbers didn’t drop dramatically and remained stable throughout the pandemic,” he said.

Before COVID-19, Mason said, many parents didn’t know what charter schools were. Tuition-free public schools offer different learning models than traditional public schools and can be smaller.

Now that the awareness is there, that momentum is building.

“I think across South Carolina we’re seeing more demand for charters, Mason said.

There are 15 charter schools slated to open statewide in 2023.

However, the pandemic has led to many potential schools delaying their application for endorsement or canceling their applications due to their inability to hold in-person meetings to discuss parent interest in the model.

During the application process, schools must demonstrate that they want to open a school in the area and explain how its model is unique compared to a district school.

“I think charter schools are able to give students and families a different option, and I think sometimes when you hear ‘different,’ it means wrong or wrong,” Mason said. “I think charter schools are there to work hand-in-hand with districts. We are public schools, we are publicly funded, and I think there are enough students in South Carolina that we need more options to better serve those students, to meet them there where they are and help them have just a foundation.

This growth trend was visible at Virtus Academy, a charter school in Florence. The school currently enrolls students in kindergarten through eighth grade and will add a grade each year until it reaches K-12 status in 2025.

The school has up to 23 students per class and uses a project-based learning program.

There are currently 532 students enrolled in the school, including 59 on the waiting list for the next school year, according to Principal Shemekia Nero.

This growth has continued since the school opened in 2018.

“I think it’s because parents are looking for something different from what’s offered in the traditional public school setting – not that it’s necessarily bad, or that they’re not getting what they need,” Nero said. “But sometimes students need something different, and I think charter schools offer something different. We are a school of choice. We are a great choice for some. For others, the traditional frame is a better option.

Erskine’s Charter Institute presented the school with a “Shooting for the Stars” award for academic growth.

Horry County will gain a new charter school next year. Horry County Acceleration Academy has been granted approval to move forward, according to an announcement Friday. Once opened, the school will target high school dropouts.

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