What I tell relocating families about Wake County schools
“But is this a good school?” This is always an uncomfortable question in conversations between parents, anxious for a straightforward response, and educators, reluctant to answer that question. What exactly makes a school “good” and how can my family tell? In my experience working with dozens of families in Wake County with students of all ages and varying circumstances, I believe this question misses what families really need. Instead of looking for an objectively “good” school, the more useful question is “Which school is the best fit for our family?”
How do you decide what school is right for your family? As with most important decisions, you need to look at a variety of factors. Many people focus on test scores, but I have been in plenty of schools that put too much emphasis on test scores and where students felt pressured to perform but aren’t engaged and excited to learn. While test scores are one factor to pay attention to, good test scores don’t necessarily make the right school for your child. We can also look at school staff, courses offered and funding. But again, there are schools with an energetic and innovative staff or lots of financial resources that are lacking in basic skills. Yet another factor is school location and available transportation.
Rather than focus on any one of these factors, my approach when helping families choose the right school is to look at all of these aspects together. Taking into account all the Raleigh area has to offer in its schools will help you make the right decision for your family. Below I have provided information to help you become familiar with Wake County schools as you start the process of finding the “right” school.
Start With the Basics
Wake County Public School System, the district where Raleigh is located, is a county-wide school system, meaning that the district combines both suburban and city schools in one large district. The entire county from Wake Forest to Holly Springs, Knightdale to Cary, are all included in the same school district as Raleigh. This sets the district apart from many other areas around the country where school systems are community-based. WCPSS is the 14th largest school district in the country and includes 116 elementary schools, 37 middle schools and 29 high schools (I’m sure there will be more next year).
Interesting Facts about Wake County schools:
●Small class size: per state law, K-3 classes are capped by the state at 18 students (WCPSS only)
●WCPSS has 21 specialized career academy high schools
●WCPSS has 22 magnet schools certified by Magnet Schools of America
●WCPSS follows the common core curriculum
●WCPSS has more National Board Certified teachers than any other district in the US
●61% of WCPSS students who took AP exams scored a 3 or higher
●76 Private Schools
●24 Charter Schools
●More than 30 STEM or STEAM schools
Like most other districts, each address in WCPSS has an assigned base school. You can attend your base school simply by registering at the school either before your child enters kindergarten or when you relocate, if the child is older. The only circumstance in which your child would be unable to attend your base school is if your school is overcrowded and enrollment has been capped, meaning they can’t accept new students because they simply don’t have enough seats. Don’t let this scenario scare you, because there is more gossip about this on social media than there needs to be. First, check with your base school to confirm whether they have seats in your needed grade levels. For example, a school may have seats in second and fifth grade, but not other grades, and you can get more accurate information at the school level. If for some reason the base school cannot accommodate your child, you will be assigned to a nearby overflow school and still provided transportation. Don’t let anecdotal stories of bussing far away scare you. The most likely scenario is you will be assigned to a school in your town that is probably a great fit!
Click here for current capped schools
Each address also has an opposite calendar option. This means if your base school has a year-round calendar, you will also have a traditional calendar option. For those of you who aren’t familiar year-round schools run on 4 different tracks with one track always being “tracked out” or on break. This allows schools to accommodate more students. Each student track is in school for 9 weeks and then tracked out for 3 weeks.
Assignments to your calendar school option are made by transfer application and are not guaranteed. You can find your designated calendar options using the same address lookup tool where you find your base school assignment. You will also receive written notification of your base school assignment from WCPSS by mail. After receiving your student’s school assignment, you have 10 days to apply for a transfer.
View the year-round calendar here
Wake County has a nationally recognized magnet school system. If you don’t feel your base school is a great fit you can apply to a magnet school. These schools are public schools and are part of the WCPSS but have specialized themes that allow them to attract students from outside their base. Themes range from leadership to creative arts, language programs, entrepreneurial design, and more. Magnet applications can be submitted in the Fall and Winter preceding the next school year, so if you are moving here in the Spring or Summer be aware that you will miss the magnet application period. Magnet schools do have base attendance zones, which means that if you move into a magnet school’s zone you do not need to separately apply through the magnet program in order to attend. Applications are based on priority status and priority is given to students from low socioeconomic neighborhoods and schools. This is done because one main purpose of the magnet program is to “reduce high concentrations of poverty in school.”
Charter schools are public schools that are not part of WCPSS but are run by independent boards. They are approved by a state charter advisory board, follow state education guidelines, are funded by the state and tuition-free. Because charter schools are run independently, however, they can operate differently from WCPSS. Some span larger grade levels, like K-8, require uniforms or even parent volunteer hours. Admission into a charter school is done by general lottery (like pulling a number from a hat) typically between December and March but the time frame varies by school. They are subject to the same state standards and their performance grades can be found alongside other public school on the NC State Report Cards.
Find a list of Charter Schools by area here
If the public school options are not providing what you are looking for you can turn to a private school. These are tuition based schools and are run independently. We have a wide range of parochial, or religious based, schools as well as independent schools. The tuition for some of these schools starts as low $5,000 a year. The admissions process to a competitive private school often starts in the fall and can include testing, interviews, recommendation letters and more. Be prepared by visiting a schools website to understand the process. Each school has its own unique admissions process. Seats are typically filled by spring so start the process early.
Wake County North Carolina is fortunate to have robust school choice options for families, though the number of options can be overwhelming and confusing. However, by arming yourself with accurate knowledge, research and clarity you will be prepared to make the best school choice for your children and family. I would love to help you as you start on this journey.
Libby Taylor owns and operates SchoolUp. She has years of experience as a teacher in WCPSS and providing professional development education to teachers. When she began the school enrollment process with her oldest child she realized how overwhelming it can be for families in Wake County. Determined to provide a better solution for families navigating school choice, she founded SchoolUp. Libby can be reached by email here