State, Chatham charter schools increase diversity with weighted lotteries


In recent years, more North Carolina charter schools have set aside seats for “educationally disadvantaged” students in their often competitive admission lotteries.

The trend is true in Chatham, too.

In Chatham, three charter schools are open to students: Chatham Charter School, Woods Charter School and Willow Oak Montessori, with School of the Arts for Boys Academy (SABA) opening to students next fall. Of those schools, Chatham Charter is the only without a “weighted” lottery for educationally disadvantaged students.

Typically, many standard charter school lottery systems give extra priority to applicants with siblings already accepted to the school, or parents who work there. A weighted lottery, as dictated by the state Dept. of Public Instruction’s Office of Charter Schools, gives students with various education disadvantages extra weight, or consideration, for acceptance. Such students could include economically disadvantaged students, migrant and immigrant students, students with disabilities, English learners and students experiencing homelessness.

All weighted lotteries must be approved by the State Board of Education.

Woods Charter implemented its weighted lottery for the first time in February, after being approved in October. Principal Cotton Bryan said the school began looking into the weighted lottery system to diversify the school, after seeking guidance from schools with such lotteries already in place. Legally, charter schools cannot admit students based on race or ethnicity, but weighted lotteries can provide preference for economically and educationally disadvantaged students, as defined above.

When the school began its process looking at weighted lotteries, 8.4% of Woods Charter families qualified for free and reduced lunch, based on a financial needs survey with 83% respondent rate. On average, the average free and reduced percentages from the five geographically closest traditional public schools for 2019-20 was 25.54% — with Pittsboro Elementary at the highest with 34.55% of students and Perry Harrison the lowest at 17.22%.

“Over time, we will look like a regular public school for this area in our demographic makeup,” Bryan said. “It’s a stretch goal for us. It’ll happen over time, we’ll have to be patient.”

Central Park School for Children, a self-described progressive charter school in Durham, was the first N.C. charter school to set aside seats for low-income students in 2013. Four years later, the state allowed other charter schools to do the same. Around that time, only five schools had a weighted lottery; this time last year, DPI told Bryan there were 24. Ashley Baquero, DPI’s education planning and development consultant, told the News + Record 42 charter schools are currently approved to use weighted lotteries.

The state’s office of charter schools is currently implementing the North Carolina Advancing Charter Collaboration and Excellence for Student Success (NC ACCESS) Program through a nearly $37 million federal grant. The creation of weighted lotteries is one part of that program.

Historically, charter schools have been criticized by some as being more segregated than traditional public schools, though education experts say that’s hard to definitively say, as many charter and traditional schools alike reflect the areas they’re located in, if not the county’s overall demographics.

Take Woods Charter for example. Bryan said while students come from eight different districts, many of the school’s students live in the Briar Chapel housing development, located a little over a mile from Woods Charter. Saving seats for economically disadvantaged students will help the school reflect the larger Chatham area over time, Bryan said.

“We are a public school. And we’re not trying to be any version of a semi-private or white-flight school,” he said. “We believe that diversity is richness.”

Woods Charter has a relatively incremental approach, setting aside 25% of its available slots after accounting for sibling and faculty applicants. This year, that meant four slots in Kindergarten and one in 9th grade. Every year the lottery will also include 3rd and 5th grades, marking the grades in which school class sizes increase.

Willow Oak Montessori has a slightly more aggressive approach, prioritizing economically disadvantaged students based on free and reduced lunch status at up to 40% of the available spots in a grade level  — after other priorities are met (children of employees, siblings of students and students enrolled in the previous two years but left, under specific circumstances).

SABA, which is set to open in August with 116 boys in 3rd, 4th and 5th grade, focuses on using the arts and culturally responsive teaching to close the achievement gap and empower Black and brown boys. The school will reserve 60% of its lottery enrollment each year to students who are educationally disadvantaged. This includes students who qualify for free and reduced lunch or receive benefits through SNAP, TANF, WIC, FDPIR, as well as migrant students, students in foster care, students enrolled in HeadStart, or those experiencing homelessness.

“SABA has set a goal of enrolling approximately 60% educationally disadvantaged students each year,” a document on the school’s website says.

Weighted lotteries are good not just because they increase diversity, Bryan said, but because diversity contributes to excellence.

“There’s a lot of reasons you should diversify your school,” he said. “But one place to start is actually thinking about the students who are here — to me are at a deficit, like they’re not getting an excellent education, if it’s not more diverse than it is.

“Part of preparing you for this world is that you’re always interacting with, bumping up against, playing with, hanging out with, debating with people with lots of backgrounds, lots of experiences.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at or on Twitter at @HannerMcClellan.