Wake's magnet and 'choice' schools bring opportunities, challenges

khui@newsobserver.comJanuary 26, 2014 

Wake County families can begin applying Tuesday for seats next fall at more than 40 schools that offer a variety of courses and approaches that might not be available at their assigned schools.

It’s the start of the application period for magnet schools, early colleges, single-sex leadership academies, and the new Vernon Malone College and Career Academy. However, the opportunity comes at a time when some of those schools are facing challenges that could affect their appeal to families.

Construction work on Interstate 40 could make commutes harder for many families, while the denial of a multimillion-dollar federal grant means some schools will take longer to become fully established. Additionally, the number of applications for magnet schools has been dropping even as the 153,000-student school system continues to grow.

But Wake school leaders say families should have confidence in applying to these schools.

“The magnet program is strong, and we have a lot of strong schools throughout the county,” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, a longtime magnet parent. “It’s a reflection of how we value choice in the community.”

Kushner: Magnets key to diversity

Since 1982, the magnet program has been Wake’s main venue for providing choice and promoting diversity. Wake’s magnet schools, many in low-income areas, offer unique programs, such as hundreds of electives and daily foreign language instruction, to attract suburban students.

“It is important that we recognize they serve the purpose of reducing high concentrations of poverty,” Kushner said. “I believe in that mission for the magnet program. We need to stay true to that mission.”

Wake will add its 35th magnet school this fall, out of 170 schools in the district, when Kingswood Elementary School in Cary begins offering the Montessori program. Montessori stresses having children work independently on hands-on activities, often in classes with students of different ages.

Parents have been attending fairs, open houses and tours during the past month to learn more about their options.

Laawanyaa Nadendla’s daughter is set to begin kindergarten this fall with Green Hope Elementary School in Cary as her assigned school. Even though Green Hope is one of the highest-performing schools in Wake, Nadendla is considering applying to magnet schools because she thinks they may offer her daughter more academically.

“My child is gifted,” she said. “I want what’s best for her. I want her to be challenged.”

Magnet applications slide

But since 2009, magnet applications have dropped by 32 percent. Wake placed 55 percent of the 6,236 applicants who applied for this school year.

Part of the reason for the drop may be Wake’s practice in recent years of adding special programs at underenrolled schools – blurring the lines between magnet and non-magnet schools.

Wake is facing some new challenges as well.

Wake will have to cope with not being included in the 27 school districts nationally that received $89.8 million in federal magnet-school dollars in September. Wake had hoped to get $12 million over three years to help five schools.

It’s the second consecutive time that Wake didn’t win a magnet grant. Critics of the school board’s former Republican majority had blamed the denial in 2010 on the elimination of busing for diversity from the student assignment policy. The Democratic board majority restored diversity as a factor last year.

Wake school leaders blame the lower overall amount of federal money appropriated last year.

“Our grant was competitive and close,” said Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance. “In a year where they got full funding, it might have been different.”

Working to replace lost grant

The grant would have gone toward three Raleigh schools that joined the magnet program this academic year – Fox and Green elementary schools and Carroll Middle School – and two existing Raleigh magnet schools that got new themes – Poe Elementary School and Moore Square Middle School.

Moore said administrators are working on determining what level of local funding to put into those five schools as a replacement for the federal dollars. It won’t be as much money as the grant would have supplied.

“We knew we were making a commitment to the schools regardless of whether we got the grant,” Moore said.

The amount is contingent on what the school board will agree to put in the 2014-15 budget.

“We need to solidify our new programs and strengthen our existing programs,” Kushner said. “We need to make sure they’re vibrant and appealing.”

I-40 work to squeeze travel

A problem facing more schools is the impact of the I-40 project.

Work that began in December on the three-mile Interstate 440 curve at the Beltline’s southeast corner has had a minimal impact on schools. But things will change later this year when construction work shifts to the busier eight-mile I-40 Beltline section across South Raleigh.

Many of the magnet schools and other choice schools are located near South Raleigh, putting potential suburban attendees into the heart of traffic jams on I-40. Secondary roads will also get extra traffic as motorists look for alternatives.

School officials are reviewing which school schedules and bus routes might need to be changed. The construction work is scheduled to last until late 2016.

“We know we will definitely be impacted,” Moore said. “We just can’t qualify what that impact will be at this time.”

One of the most heavily affected schools will be the Malone Academy, Wake’s new career and technical education high school. The academy will give students the opportunity to earn a high school diploma and gain college credit and training in fields such as biopharmaceuticals, video game design, plumbing and cosmetology.

But the academy’s location on South Wilmington Street means all its bus routes will be directly affected by the I-40 project, school officials say.

Nadendla, the Cary mother, said students in suburban areas already have a long commute to the magnet schools. She said the possibility of the I-40 project making the bus rides even longer is a real concern.

“I don’t want a 5-year-old to be riding on a bus that long,” she said.

But Chantal Ayers, a Cary mother of a child entering kindergarten this fall, said the roadwork won’t affect her decision about applying to a magnet school to get those academic benefits.

“The construction work will be temporary,” she said. “My children’s education will be permanent. I’ve got to do what’s best for my children’s education.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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