Wake County’s magnet schools have earned national recognition during the past 32 years, but have reached a crossroads as they face tougher competition for students from inside and outside of the school district.
Magnet applications have dropped 42 percent since 2007 even as enrollment in North Carolina’s largest school district has increased by 14 percent. But with nearly 2,600 applicants a year still being turned down, some Wake County school leaders say more magnet schools are needed to keep up with growth, give additional options to families and promote diverse school enrollments.
“The capacity in our magnet system has not kept up with the school system’s growth, or with demand,” school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner said at a student-assignment work session last month.
“And I think that’s something I would like for us to incorporate into next steps to expand that capacity because magnets have been such an effective program for our school system.”
The future of the magnet program is one of the issues that’s expected to be included in the new five-year strategic plan that will be completed later this year. The development of the new plan is designed to involve the school board, school employees and the community. And board members are leery of making specific predictions.
“We’re not even close to saying where we’re going yet,” school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton said. “We’re still brainstorming right now. We want to hear what the community thinks about magnet schools.”
The possibility of adding more magnet schools is welcomed by those who have fought efforts they felt would weaken the program.
“Parents really love public education and public schools,” said Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition. “But they really want programs that meet the educational needs of their children. That’s what’s cool about magnet schools.”
But critics worry expansion could drain resources from non-magnet schools that educate the majority of Wake’s 153,300 students. Nearly 31,000 students attend 35 magnet schools, costing an additional $12 million a year in local funds.
“They don’t have a limitless supply of money,” said Jennifer Mansfield, a North Raleigh parent and former school board candidate. “They need to take care of the basics first before they look at adding more magnets.”
The Wake County school system is known nationally for its efforts to keep school enrollments diverse and for its magnet program. That program has been one of Wake’s main vehicles for promoting diversity.
It began in 1982, six years after the merger of the Wake County and Raleigh City school systems. The school system was faced with overcrowded suburban schools and under-enrolled Raleigh schools that were increasingly attended by large minority populations.
School leaders came up with the idea of placing special programs around the county, but mainly at the under-enrolled Raleigh schools. With magnet options such as a variety of foreign languages, classical studies, unique electives and classes targeting academically gifted students, the goal was to attract white, suburban students to the inner-city Raleigh schools.
Wake’s magnet schools have won numerous national awards. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh was named the top magnet school in the nation in May by Magnet Schools of America. The trade organization gave awards to 23 other Wake magnet schools this year.
Next April, Wake’s magnet schools will be showcased when more than 1,200 people come to Raleigh for Magnet Schools of America’s national conference.
“They’ve been the trendsetters for the magnet program in general,” said John Laughner, a spokesman for the group. “They have a pretty progressive policy in regard to how they integrate their students by socioeconomic status. We consider them to be a model for other school districts in the country.”
But controversy has accompanied the success at times. For many years, Wake had limits on what non-magnet schools could offer.
Benton, the school board member, said when he was principal of Durant Road Middle School in Raleigh, he couldn’t make changes such as offering orchestra, foreign languages other than Spanish and some electives, because those options were only for magnet schools. He retired from Durant in 2005.
But in the past few years, Wake had added themes to some traditional schools, allowed others to offer more electives and created non-magnet schools such as the Vernon Malone College and Career Academy opening in August and the leadership academies.
“The district has over the last few years done a lot of work to make sure all the schools have attractive programming,” school board member Keith Sutton said. “There probably has been somewhat of a blurring of the lines as to what relates to magnet schools and non-magnet schools.”
That blurring of the lines coincides with a drop in magnet applications.
For the 2007-08 school year, Wake had 9,571 magnet applicants. For the upcoming school year, the system had 5,558 applicants. Wake placed 53 percent of them into magnet schools, and sent rejection letters to the remaining 2,586 students who applied.
Sutton said the drop is good news because fewer people are being rejected. For instance, 6,227 applicants were rejected for the 2007-08 school year.
“The fewer people we have to decline is better for the system,” Sutton said. “By having these other options that are non-magnets, you don’t have people feeling the only way you can get a good education is at a magnet. That may have been the perception a few years ago.”
Other possible reasons for the drop in applications include competition from more charter schools, the long commute for some students to the magnet schools and an increase in ways for non-magnet families to avoid reassignment.
While Benton agreed it’s a good thing that fewer people are being rejected, he said the school board can discuss whether they need to reinvigorate the magnets to make them more attractive.
Kushner’s idea is to add more magnet schools. She noted that the magnet program hasn’t kept up with growth.
In 1982, the 28 magnet schools accounted for almost a third of the district’s 85 schools. This fall, the 35 magnet schools will account for a fifth of the 171 schools.
A decade ago, magnet schools educated a quarter of Wake’s students. It’s now down to 20 percent.
“It strengthens the system,” Kushner said of adding magnets.
Brannon of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition said putting more magnet programs around the Raleigh Beltline would make them accessible to the rest of the county.
Sutton cautioned that any expansion would need to be done strategically.
Shila Nordone, a North Raleigh parent, questioned adding magnet programs at a time when she said a number of non-magnet schools are under-enrolled and lack basic resources. She said that unless Wake wins a federal grant that would provide short-term funding, something Wake has failed to get the past two cycles, any expansion would come at the expense of non-magnet schools.
“They’re going to have to get it off the backs of the other schools,” she said.