How NC became a national leader for magnet schools to promote diversity and choice

North Carolina is one of the national leaders in a school movement that since the 1970s has promoted diversity and educational choices for families, according to a new study on magnet schools.

The study by UNC-Charlotte’s Urban Institute found there are 4,340 magnet schools in the U.S., and North Carolina has the sixth-most of any state at 263 schools.

Todd Mann, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, the national trade organization that commissioned the study, said North Carolina ranks even higher if you consider the quality of the state’s magnet schools.

“Nationally people look at North Carolina as being pioneers in magnet schools and all the core things we see in magnet schools,” Mann said.

Supporters tout magnet schools as being the original form of school choice since they started in the 1970s with the explicit goal of desegregating schools. School districts around the country began creating magnet schools offering specialized themes to try to attract a diverse cross-section of students at the schools, many of which were located in minority communities.

North Carolina school districts, particularly Wake, Durham and Charlotte-Mecklenburg, were among those that created magnet schools with an eye toward promoting school diversity.

Wake County’s current magnet school program dates back to 1982 and now includes 45 schools with the recent addition of West Millbrook Middle School in Raleigh. Wake’s magnet schools have themes such as entrepreneurial design, engineering, International Baccalaureate, Montessori and Academy of the Visual and Performing Arts.

This year, Wake placed 56 percent of the 5,650 applicants into magnet schools. The application period to attend magnet schools in Wake and Durham for the 2018-19 school year starts in January.

Anne Cooper’s two daughters, Anne Hope, 17, and Laura, 15, have attended magnet schools in Raleigh for their entire educational careers. Cooper said they were initially attracted to magnet schools because those with the gifted and talented theme offer unique electives. Cooper’s daughters have taken electives such as modern dance, tap dance, flute and various other arts courses.

Mel Tomlinson works with members of the Ligon GT Magnet Middle School dance company and alumni of the Ligon dance company at Ligon Middle School on Jan. 21, 2016. Tomlinson attended the school in the late 1960s and went on to become an award-winning dancer. Ethan Hyman

“I have really enjoyed over the years their being able to explore their interests,” said Cooper, who lives in the Mordecai neighborhood near downtown Raleigh. “With the magnet schools they’ve gone to, they have been able to try electives for new experiences.”

Now Cooper’s daughters attend Enloe High School in Raleigh, which attracts magnet students from across Wake County. In addition to the challenging courses, Cooper said she’s appreciated how her daughters have been able to interact with a wide range of people at Enloe.

“I like my kids going to school with a population that looks like our community,” Cooper said. “There are people from all walks of life and different economic situations and different cultures and different places in the community.”

Next door to Wake, Durham’s 23 magnet schools make up nearly half the schools in the district.

The reputation of North Carolina’s magnet schools is why Magnet Schools of America held its national conference in Raleigh in 2015, according to Mann. He said one of the purposes of the conference was for attendees to learn more about the magnet schools in the Raleigh-Durham area.

Mann also pointed to how North Carolina’s magnet schools historically do well in the group’s annual awards competition:

▪ In May, Idlewild Elementary School in Charlotte was named the best magnet school in the nation;

▪ This year, Felecia Locklear of Brooks Elementary School in Raleigh was a finalist for magnet principal of the year, and Sonya Drum, an art teacher at Washington Elementary School in Raleigh, was a finalist for magnet teacher of the year;

▪ This year, 27 Wake County magnet schools, three Durham magnet schools and 17 Charlotte-Mecklenburg magnet schools received national awards from the group;

Wendell Elementary Magnet teachers stand with their kindergarten charges, seated just before the start of the awards program and celebration in the school gym on May 15, 2015. Wendell Elementary Magnet was named the Best Magnet Elementary School in the America in 2015. News & Observer file photo

▪ Several Wake County schools have been named the top magnet school in the U.S., with Douglas Elementary School in Raleigh being the most recent in 2016.

Magnet schools have been facing increasing competition from charter schools, which are also public schools. But unlike magnet schools, most charter schools are independent of the school district they’re located in.

Mann said magnet schools should continue to have a prominent role among U.S. public schools.

“There has been significant growth in the number of magnet schools since the ’80s and ’90s,” Mann said. “The reason for that is that people saw magnet schools are more than schools for school’s sake.

“They’ve got great curriculum and great teachers and kids are benefiting from going there.”

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

Learn more about magnet schools

The application period for Wake County’s magnet schools runs from Jan. 10-31. Go to for more information. The application period for Durham’s magnet schools is Jan. 8-31. Go to