Magnets could lose their pull

Ideas for Wake schools may alter admission rules, spread out courses

Staff WriterNovember 16, 2009 

  • Many Wake County parents think of the school system's magnet school program as a way for their children to take special classes that they can't find at their assigned school.

    But for the past 27 years, the magnet program has had other purposes that at times have frustrated families who've been shut out of a magnet seat. School leaders have placed higher priorities on using magnet schools to ensure diversity across the system and to relieve crowding at suburban schools.

    For this school year, 3,862 students out of 9,229 applicants, or about 42 percent, were placed in a magnet school.

    A complicated formula guides the selection process. It's designed to give priority to applicants who want to leave crowded and affluent schools. Because magnet schools are in lower-income areas, the policy's goal has been to balance them with applicants from more affluent locations.

    Although 10 percent of seats are filled randomly, the other 90 percent are filled using the system that gives priority to affluent, suburban students.

    The process can annoy parents who mistakenly assume that all the seats are randomly filled and that no one gets better odds than anyone else.

    Wake's rules mean that applicants who want to leave some high-poverty schools have an extremely hard time getting a magnet seat.

    Once accepted in magnet elementary schools, students have priority getting into magnet middle schools and magnet high schools.

    Parents can begin applying for magnet program seats for the next school year in February.

    Staff writer T. Keung Hui

— Wake County's magnet school system, the daily face of education for 27,000 students, will likely go through a gradual transformation starting two weeks from Tuesday.

Critics of the magnet schools say they're overdue for a reappraisal so that high-end classes - designed to draw students to troubled schools in low-income areas - can be spread across the county. Supporters cite the program's academic strengths and its mix of students from up and down the economic ladder.

"I'm really nervous about this whole thing," Bill Stuart, a parent at the East Raleigh magnet Enloe High, said at a meeting there Tuesday. "The most important thing I did was buy a house about a mile from here so my kid could go here."

On Dec. 1, the nine-member Wake County school board will swear in four new board members who will create a new ruling majority along with current member Ron Margiotta. They have said they favor neighborhood schools over current policies that use magnets, student reassignments and busing to try to keep any school from having too many students from low-income backgrounds.

Margiotta, who represents a Western Wake district, and other new members say they support the magnets. But they say that the program loads up its schools, most in downtown, with electives while some outlying schools have many fewer options.

"We don't want the whipped cream - give us a couple of crumbs," he said.

Current school board member Keith Sutton disagrees. "If they put the same magnet programs out in Cary or Apex, there's no incentive to come here," he said, referring to his district near downtown Raleigh.

Meanwhile, magnet supporters, including some students, are lobbying hard against changes to the institutions they value, such as Enloe, which has been ranked among the best secondary schools in the nation.

"I don't believe in taking Enloe apart," said Dhruv Jain, 14, an Enloe freshman from Cary. Hundreds of people have joined a pro-Enloe magnet group he created on Facebook. "I agree that Enloe shouldn't be the only school like that. I support that other schools should have just as good an opportunity."

The new board members say they won't gut the 27-year-old magnet system but will examine it closely for inequities and areas for change, including admission based on a weighted lottery.

Proposals that could in time affect the magnet school system include:

A change in the admissions lottery based on a formula that allows easier magnet admission for students who live in some parts of town and attend certain schools.

A more even distribution of advanced-placement courses and electives to schools other than magnets, especially to schools in outlying part of Wake County.

A focus on magnets that deal with specific academic areas and those built on collaborations with a business or a nonprofit organization such as the North Carolina Symphony.

Use of admissions requirements for some schools.

Magnet schools in low-income, high diversity areas have helped power the system's diversity efforts because they draw white suburban students to magnet schools such as Enloe and Hunter Elementary School, both east of downtown Raleigh. A neighborhood approach could mean that students living close to schools would replace magnet students from other parts of the county.

Groups of parents at Hunter and Conn elementary schools and other magnets are mobilizing to stave off major changes to their schools, such as watered-down course offerings. They worry that Wake magnets could go the same route as those in Charlotte, where several magnet programs were cut and magnet enrollment declined after the county system abandoned busing for diversity.

"There's a concern that the magnet program has given a lot to our schools, and we certainly would like that to be maintained," said Julie Snee, an Oakwood resident and Conn parent who took part in a downtown march last month to support the current school board's approach to diversity.

The pace of change

Last week at Enloe, about 60 magnet parents and students talked up the system in a meeting with Sutton, the school board member whose East Raleigh district includes the high school. Parent Jim Connor wanted to know whether the board could change magnet policies in one fell swoop after members are sworn in Dec. 1.

"There is a huge learning curve," Sutton said. "I don't think we'll see any wholesale changes overnight. I do think there will be some low-hanging fruit that the new board members will take to fulfill campaign promises."

One early change could overturn the current lottery system, which gives a better chance to students whose departure to a magnet would reduce the population at an affluent, overcrowded school. Only 10 percent of magnet students are chosen in a truly random lottery.

North Raleigh parent and blogger Jennifer Mansfield is a long-time critic of current board policy and a supporter of the candidates who will make up the panel's new majority.

"The acceptance process is discriminatory, and it boggles my mind that the school system doesn't see that," she said.

Among other things, Mansfield questions the need for magnet schools, such as Underwood and Wiley elementary schools, in affluent residential neighborhoods. Both schools had low populations when the programs were instituted.

Enloe has more than 2,600 students, about a third of them "base" students from neighborhoods near the school off New Bern Avenue. They attend alongside students attracted from the far reaches of the county by extensive electives, advanced placement classes, several foreign language courses and arts instruction.

"I love the diversity here," Jenna Jordan, 16, an Enloe junior from Cary, said at the recent meeting in support of the magnet program. "Having students from all over is one of the best things this school has to offer."

Parent Amy Madison recalled the new school board members' pledge that they'll do a better job of listening to parents' concerns.

"We're parents, too!" she said. "We were happy, so we weren't making a ruckus. Maybe it's time to."

thomas.goldsmith@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8929

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