Education

Wake County’s high-poverty magnet schools attract fewer applicants

Wendell Elementary Magnet 5th graders sing their end of grade (EOG) shake it off song and dance in the school gym to Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' tune Friday, May 15, 2015 during the school's celebration of having been named the Best Magnet Elementary School in America this year. The Wendell, NC Magnet elementary school has 465 students grades K-5 with a staff of 75 school employees.
Wendell Elementary Magnet 5th graders sing their end of grade (EOG) shake it off song and dance in the school gym to Taylor Swift's 'Shake It Off' tune Friday, May 15, 2015 during the school's celebration of having been named the Best Magnet Elementary School in America this year. The Wendell, NC Magnet elementary school has 465 students grades K-5 with a staff of 75 school employees. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Brentwood and Wendell elementary schools are ranked among the nation’s top magnet schools, but each of 11 other Wake County elementary schools had more applications than those two award-winning schools combined.

Nearly all of those 11 higher-demand magnet schools have fewer low-income students than Brentwood and Wendell. Throughout the system, magnet schools where more than half the students receive federally subsidized lunches attract far fewer applicants than schools with more affluent students in attendance.

The low application numbers are making it harder to fulfill one of the main purposes of the magnet program, which is to reduce high concentrations of low-income students at schools. Now as Wake begins a new review of the magnet program, some schools might have their themes overhauled in hopes of boosting parental interest.

But school administrators say they don’t necessarily see a correlation between high poverty levels and low application numbers. Instead, they say they view each magnet school on a case-by-case basis to see what can be done to help generate more interest.

“It’s a very complex issue,” said Lisa Luten, a Wake County schools spokeswoman. “It could be a case of marketing. Is the program strong? What’s the community like?”

Since 1982, Wake has used the magnet program to diversify school enrollments, fill underenrolled schools and provide additional educational opportunities. Wake’s 40 magnet schools offer programs – such as advanced arts and foreign language courses – typically not found at nonmagnet schools.

Beth Cochran, Wake’s senior director for magnet and curriculum enhancement programs, said it’s more cost-effective to offer some programs at magnet schools where everyone can apply than to have them in all 171 schools. Wake’s $16 million magnet budget is a little more than 1 percent of the district’s $1.4 billion operating budget.

If not for the program, many magnet schools would have much higher percentages of low-income students. This school year, 18.4 percent of the application students at magnet schools receive subsidized lunches compared with 59.5 percent of the students who live in the attendance areas for the same schools.

The latest review comes as Wake decides which schools to include in a multimillion-dollar federal magnet-school grant it will apply for next year. But the review also comes at a time when the overall number of applications has been on the wane.

For the 2015-16 school year, Wake received 6,537 applications for magnet and other choice schools, down 29 percent from the 2009-10 school year.

Luten said school officials are not concerned about the drop because they attribute it to a change under which applicants can no longer reject their placement into a magnet school. Luten said while fewer are applying, those families are more committed to the magnet program.

Six years ago, no magnet school had fewer than 62 applicants. For this fall, 10 magnet schools had fewer than 50 applications. In nine of those 10 schools, at least half of the students enrolled receive subsidized lunches.

The group of schools with little interest from applicants includes Fox Road Elementary in North Raleigh, which received six applications for this fall and 18 in the past three years. Green Elementary in North Raleigh, which became a magnet school at the same time as Fox Road, had 34 applications for this fall.

“They’re still developing their reputation for people to choose to go there,” Cochran said.

Green had slightly more than the 31 applications that Wendell Elementary School received. Wendell was named in April the top magnet elementary school in the nation by Magnet Schools of America, which represents more than 2,000 magnet schools.

But Luten said the low number of applications at Wendell and other eastern Wake magnet schools isn’t a problem. She said those schools are designed to have a small number of magnet students to focus on keeping the students who live in their attendance areas.

“Quite frankly, all the applications in eastern Wake magnets are students living in eastern Wake,” said school board Vice Chairman Tom Benton, who represents most of eastern Wake. “They really don’t attract students from other areas of the county to any kind of a large degree.”

But that reason doesn’t apply to Brentwood Elementary in North Raleigh, a magnet school since 2009. It received 58 applications for the fall. Eric Fitts, the principal at Brentwood Elementary, said it takes time for families to realize the strengths of a magnet program and recognize the progress a school is making.

Brentwood can tout its ranking in April as the No. 2 magnet school in the nation by Magnet Schools of America.

“Brentwood is a good example of doing a good job of developing its reputation,” Cochran said. “I think we’ll see an increase in its applications as it continues to receive recognition for its work.”

Still, school administrators acknowledge that some magnet schools could use a new theme to increase interest. Several schools could be eligible for inclusion in the new grant application.

“Obviously we’re not going to overhaul a school with a successful theme,” Cochran said. Staff writer Sarah Barr contributed to this report.

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui

High- and low-demand magnet schools

Elementary schools with most magnet applications

School

Applications

Pct. Free/Reduced Lunch

Combs Elementary

295

34.4

Washington Elementary

256

32.9

Fuller Elementary

212

41.4

Hunter Elementary

210

43.6

Brooks Elementary

162

27.9

Elementary schools with fewest magnet applications

School

Applications

Pct. Free/Reduced Lunch

Fox Road Elementary

6

78.9

Hodge Road Elementary

14

79.0

Stough Elementary

14

56.8

Zebulon Elementary

15

65.1

Wendell Elementary

31

56.0

Source: Wake County Public School System

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