Education

Wake County changing rules for filling seats at magnet schools

Mel Tomlinson works with seventh-grader Yoni Ram while he works with members of the Ligon GT Magnet Middle School dance company on Jan. 21, 2016. Wake County’s magnet school application period runs from Jan. 12-31, 2017.
Mel Tomlinson works with seventh-grader Yoni Ram while he works with members of the Ligon GT Magnet Middle School dance company on Jan. 21, 2016. Wake County’s magnet school application period runs from Jan. 12-31, 2017. ehyman@newsobserver.com

The income level for a student’s neighborhood will once again help determine who gets accepted into a Wake County magnet school.

When Wake’s magnet school application period opens Thursday, new selection priorities will result in students who come from affluent areas getting priority into 38 magnet schools. Students who come from low-income areas will get priority into five Raleigh magnet schools.

It’s a return, with some changes, to how Wake filled magnet schools before a Republican school board majority briefly led the district. School officials say the change is being made to improve Wake’s chances of winning a federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant this year. Wake wants the money to pay for programs at four schools.

“The MSAP grant prioritizes schools that promote socioeconomic integration and diversity,” Deputy Superintendent Cathy Moore said Wednesday. “What we’re doing is aligning our practices with the specific practices in the MSAP guidelines.”

Moore said it’s too soon to say what impact the changes will have on applications. Last year, Wake placed 3,010 out of 5,458 applicants, or 55.1 percent, into a magnet school.

Since 1982, Wake has offered unique academic programs at magnet schools such as advanced arts courses to try to fill and diversify under-enrolled schools. The majority of Wake’s magnet schools are in historically high-poverty areas or were given magnet status to try to reduce their percentage of low-income students.

“We publicize magnets as being a tool for helping promote diversity,” Moore said.

Wake dropped the use of socioeconomic diversity to help fill magnet schools in 2010, when Republicans led the school board. Wake changed the rules to give priority to applicants who came from areas with high test scores.

On average, affluent students do better academically than lower-income classmates. But it’s not a perfect match.

Wake County is divided into 6,000 geographic locations, called catchment areas, for assignment purposes. Wake will now look at the percentage of students receiving federally subsidized lunches in each applicant’s catchment area.

Moore said federal officials are allowing schools to use school lunch program data as long as it isn’t used to identify individual students.

For most magnet schools, students who live in areas that are at or below the district’s average for receiving subsidized lunches will get selection priority. They’ll get higher priority if they’re also trying to get out of a school that’s below the district average for subsidized meals.

But at Brooks, Joyner, Underwood and Wiley elementary schools and Martin Middle School, seats will be set aside for applicants who live in areas that are 10 percentage points above Wake’s average for subsidized lunches. Moore said the district wants to help keep those schools diverse by attracting students from less affluent areas.

As families mull their magnet options, experts say parents should just pick their favorite schools. In 2015, a trio of N.C. State economics professors, including Bob Hammond, helped modify Wake’s magnet selection algorithm so that families don’t have to consider their chances of getting admission when they rank their choices.

“Don’t over think it or over strategize,” Hammond said. “You can’t game the system.”

T. Keung Hui: 919-829-4534, @nckhui

Applying to a magnet school

The application period for Wake County magnet schools runs from 9 a.m. on Jan. 12 to 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 31. A link to the online application will be on the Wake County school’s system website at http://www.wcpss.net/.

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