If living in a “good school district” is at the top of your house hunt criteria, you’ll want to do your homework (pun intended!). The Wake County Public School System currently rates in the top 10 school districts in North Carolina for 2022. As a result, the area is more desirable than ever for home buyers.
However, moving into a neighborhood near your preferred school doesn't mean that your child will necessarily be able to attend that school. To promote less crowding and more individual attention to students, the Wake County school board approved enrollment caps on area schools.
What does a cap mean?
Schools that reach the maximum number of students that can be effectively taught stop taking new enrollments. When that happens, students are assigned to an overflow school. Transportation is provided to and from the overflow school. Students attending the overflow schools are assigned a place on the waitlist of the base (i.e. neighborhood) school and will be allowed to attend when an opening becomes available.
The Wake County Public School System offers a page with complete information, including answers to frequently asked questions on Wake County Enrollment Caps.
What happens if your base school is capped?
A capped school doesn't necessarily mean your child can’t attend, even if you’re new to the area. It depends on whether there are seats available in your child’s grade level. So the first step is to start the enrollment process at the base school for your neighborhood. Keep in mind that you must be living in your home at the time of enrollment. You won’t be able to apply to a school, even to be on the waiting list, unless you’ve established residency.
If your child is on a waiting list, you’ll be contacted when a seat at your base school opens up. If a seat opens mid-year and you want your child to continue at their current school to finish out the year, you can request to be assigned to the base school at the beginning of the next school year.
What other options are there?
In addition to researching the base school in the area where you want to buy, you’ll want to learn about the overflow schools and other options for your child’s education. The Wake County Public School System has an Address Lookup tool where you type in the exact address of the home you’re considering. You’ll see whether the schools are capped. If so, click through to see the overflow schools and transportation options offered.
There are also other options:
Charter Schools - Wake County currently has 24 area Charter schools. Charter schools are government funded but operate independently of the state school system. Public charter schools are tuition free, but they also have limited enrollment. You’ll have to check the enrollment process to your preferred school. Proof of residency may be requested before you can apply.
Magnet Schools - Magnet schools are public schools with specialized courses and programs that are tailored to each student’s strengths. Magnet schools tend to be more diverse, promoting integration. You can apply to more than one magnet school and rank your preferences.
Private Schools - There are 100 private schools in Wake County, with about one-third being faith-based schools. Private schools charge tuition and fees that vary by institution, but most offer financial aid or payment options. Parents may need to provide transportation to and from school.
New construction is booming in Wake County. In fact, seven Triangle towns are some of North Carolina’s fastest growing areas. Apex and Cary lead the way, since they're more centrally located, they're close to Research Triangle Park—and, of course, they boast good schools.
New schools are in various stages of completion to cope with the surge in residents. Schools may set up modular classrooms as well, but despite the new classroom space a school may still be at maximum enrollment for the year.
Coping with capping
It can be a shock to learn that, even though you buy a home well within school boundaries, your child can’t attend that school. Add to that the uncertainty as to whether they may be able to attend next quarter or next year—how do you and your child cope?
1. Be prepared. If you know you’re going to purchase a home in the Wake County Public School System, understand that the system is in flux. Buying a home doesn’t guarantee where your child will attend school, so brace yourself.
2. Do extra research. Learn all your options for choosing a school for your child. You may find that a magnet, charter or private school is a better option for your child. In fact, the overflow school may be a blessing in disguise! But do your due diligence, and don’t dismiss the alternatives out of hand.
3. Prepare your child. Your child is already coping with some major changes by moving to a new house in a new neighborhood. It will be even more difficult to understand why they can’t go to the same school as their new best friend. Make the situation as positive for your child as possible.
4. Check with your base school. Don’t rely on anecdotal stories on the internet or reports from the neighbors. Get in touch with your base school directly to understand under what conditions a child, even new to the neighborhood, can attend the local school. There may be waivers for special needs students, or perhaps your employment makes them eligible to attend the base school. Find out due dates for applying for an opening and make sure you apply within those dates.
If you're looking to move your family to (or within) Wake County, dealing with the capped school issue can be a hassle. Follow these tips and you're sure to find the perfect neighborhood—and school.