As the Wake County school board debates whether to expand its magnet school offerings, Garner leaders appreciate what magnet programs have done locally but they aren’t unified regarding which direction they’d like to see the county go.
Meanwhile, school board member Monika Johnston-Hostler – who represents Garner as well as much of Fuquay-Varina and Knightdale – said it was too early to assess the best path but also said she generally supports magnets.
“We are going to have to look at the data,” Johnson-Hostler said. “My personal feeling is magnet schools still serve a purpose to this day. And parents agree, which is why they still apply.”
This year’s data shows that applications have dropped 42 percent since 2007 despite increasing overall enrollment. However, just 53 percent of 5,558 applications resulted in placements. That unmet demand leaves proponents, including school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, believing the program could be expanded.
Wake County established magnets in 1982 in response to overcrowded suburban schools and under-enrolled Raleigh schools with large minority populations.
Magnet options such as a variety of foreign languages, classical studies and unique electives and classes were designed to attract academically gifted students to the inner-city Raleigh schools.
Garner now has three magnets in the area: Garner High School, East Garner Middle School and Smith Elementary School.
Council members generally credit Garner High’s magnet status and resulting IB programing for at least aiding the town’s turnaround. The formerly bottom-end test scores have risen into the middle of the pack in the county and the school has earned a number of awards in the process.
“I don’t think we want to lose any magnet schools, that’s for sure,” said councilman Gra Singleton.
Ken Marshburn also pointed to positives of the legacies of magnets in Wake County.
“I think the school board would be wise to consider ways to expand it further,” Marshburn said. “The magnet school system has served us well.”
Councilwoman Kathy Behringer, however, thought magnets may have outlived their usefulness. Many schools have begun some magnet-like programs; in the beginning non-magnets had been restricted in what they could implement.
“(Magnets) served us well in the past. Garner becoming a magnet high school was a big shot in the arm,” Behringer said. “(But) the world has changed, and the need and the focus has shifted so the magnet school program doesn’t meet those needs.”
Like other council members she did acknowledge both a lack of detailed expertise – not to mention the council’s complete lack of authority to affect schools policy. Behringer and other council members admit they have plenty to learn on the issue of magnet schools. And, they say, as council members then have no authority to make changes.
More than magnets
The discussion prompted her to bring up the bigger concern of many on the council: assignment and getting a third middle school.
Council members have regularly advocated keeping as many Garner students in Garner as possible. Since North Garner – the base middle school for most Garner residents – is year-round, many Garner families seeking traditional calendars end up sent to Dillard Drive Middle School in Cary, according to council members.
East Garner’s base area includes portions of eastern Garner. But most of its territory consists of a vast area further south, east and northeast. Since it’s the closest middle school to the Johnston County line, it’s boundary traces that border from where I-40 hits it, extending northwest to about due east of the school. The school also draws from the outer-parts of Southeast Raleigh and nearby unincorporated territory, including neighborhoods surrounding Barwell Road Elementary.
It’s unclear what role the magnet aspect plays in Garner students attending Dillard Drive while out-of-towners attend East Garner. East Garner drew 128 applications from outside its base. It’s unclear how many of the applicants came from Garner; you can apply from anywhere in the county.
All but one applicant was accepted, indicating that had a Garner student applied, odds were good they’d be accepted. Behringer also admitted she didn’t know whether being a magnet school made a difference.
This year, Garner Magnet High School drew 107 out-of-base applicants, accepting 101. Last year, it accepted just 44 out of 83, though increased capacity with a full school year of the new freshman center may have played a role.
Smith Elementary accepted 31 of 33 applicants this year. Last year it accepted 21 of 38.
Of non-magnets, Timber Drive had the most applications among Garner schools, accepting 55 out of 66.
Another complaint of Garner leaders is overcrowded middle schools. They want the just-passed school bond to build a middle school instead of an elementary school as planned. And North Garner Middle School, heavily reliant on temporary structures like East Garner, turned down 19 of 22 applicants.