The application period for Wake County's magnet school program opens Monday amid a number of changes affecting both the popular program and the school system.
The application period, running from 1 p.m. Monday to Dec. 19, is starting two months earlier than normal to accommodate the time frame for the recently adopted choice-based student assignment plan. The selection criteria have also changed, which could sharply impact some people's chances for getting accepted for the 2012-13 school year.
"We're trying to get the message out to parents that they need to apply now," said Vickie Adamson, PTA president of Ligon Middle School, a magnet school in Raleigh. "We're hoping we'll get a lot of applications."
Adamson said she's concerned that the holiday period might cause some families to forget to submit an application since they're used to the process starting in February.
School officials moved up the magnet application period because the new assignment plan will have parents beginning to apply Jan. 17 for seats at nonmagnet schools. Unlike previous plans where students were automatically assigned to a school based on their address, families will now rank their choices from a list of options given to them.
Wake began the magnet school program in 1982 as a way to fill and diversify inner-city schools. Magnet schools offer unique academic programs to encourage voluntary attendance from suburban students.
Even though Wake's student assignment policy no longer uses socioeconomic diversity as a factor, school leaders still tout the magnet school program as a tool for promoting integration. That's why school leaders say they revised the magnet selection process this year to give priority to applicants who live in higher-performing areas, which are also more likely to have fewer low-income students.
"What we don't want to find ourselves in is a situation where we have the magnet program yet what we do is we invite more poverty into the magnet schools," said Superintendent Tony Tata. "That would seem to be a little bit counterproductive."
The changes are taking place amid a time of transition for the school board, where victories by five Democratic candidates this fall shifted control away from Republicans. Three current or former magnet parents are among the new members being sworn in Tuesday.
Magnet supporters were among the most vocal critics of the Republican majority, fearing their support for neighborhood schools would weaken the magnet program. During the campaign, Republican candidates talked about spreading around the county some of the programs offered at magnet schools.
"With the new school board, we feel that the magnet program will remain strong and be protected," Adamson said.
Also since the campaign, talk about eliminating neighborhood bus service for magnet students has been moved off the board agenda.
Republican school board Vice Chairman John Tedesco said magnet parents haven't given the outgoing majority enough credit for having protected both the number of magnet schools and their funding.
"We have kept the magnet program strong," Tedesco said.
New Democratic school board member Jim Martin said the fact that he's a magnet parent shouldn't cause people to feel he won't advocate for nonmagnet students.
"I'm a strong supporter of the magnet program," Martin said. "But I also think we need to have stronger programs for all our students."