Education

Wake County diversifying students at 5 Raleigh magnet schools

Wiley Magnet Elementary School teachers Sadie Hoover and Chris Gower-Hahner hold a multi-lingual banner for students departing on the last day of class on June 8, 2015. Wiley is one of five WCPSS magnets that will be asked to diversify their enrollments by accepting more lower-performing and lower-income students.
Wiley Magnet Elementary School teachers Sadie Hoover and Chris Gower-Hahner hold a multi-lingual banner for students departing on the last day of class on June 8, 2015. Wiley is one of five WCPSS magnets that will be asked to diversify their enrollments by accepting more lower-performing and lower-income students. hlynch@newsobserver.com

Five Raleigh magnet schools located near middle- and upper-class communities will be asked to accept more lower-performing and lower-income students.

Wake County school officials say that Brooks, Joyner, Underwood and Wiley elementary schools and Martin Middle School aren’t doing enough to meet magnet program objectives such as reducing high concentrations of poverty. Instead of removing the magnet programs – as would have been done in the past – Wake will try changing how their magnet students are selected to create a student body that is more economically diverse than the neighborhood students at those five schools.

“These are schools that some would ask sometimes why they’re magnets, because their base populations have changed, and they’ve been very effective in attracting students to their schools,” Beth Cochran, Wake’s senior director of magnet and curriculum enhancement programs, told school board members this week.

It’s a fundamental change in the way Wake fills seats in its popular magnet program.

The majority of Wake’s 42 magnet schools are in historically high-poverty and/or lower-performing areas. Unique programs – such as advanced arts and foreign language courses – are offered to attract applicants who will reduce the high concentrations of low-income students at those magnet schools.

But Wake also operates some magnet schools that are in more affluent areas, to help those schools compete with private schools and charter schools for neighborhood students. For instance, Underwood Elementary is in Five Points, and Wiley Elementary is near Cameron Park.

Wake administrators say some schools in more affluent areas – such as Broughton High and Daniels Middle – are meeting magnet objectives. But administrators say Brooks, Joyner, Underwood, Wiley and Martin are not. The percentage of students receiving federally subsidized lunches at those five schools is below the district average.

Since magnet applicants make up the minority of students at those five schools, North Raleigh parent Jennifer Mansfield said Wake is essentially subsidizing private schools for the neighborhood kids.

“It’s amazing that they’re spending so much to keep those families, and they’re getting so much more than what other schools get,” said Mansfield, a longtime critic of Wake’s magnet program.

Wake historically has used one set of criteria for filling all its magnet schools that gives priority to applicants from high-performing areas and overcrowded schools. High-performing areas are defined as those that rank in the top one-third of state test scores.

But for the 2016-17 school year, the district will use customized selection criteria for different schools. That means 30 percent of magnet vacancies at Brooks, Joyner, Underwood, Wiley and Martin will be set aside for applicants from areas that rank in the bottom two-thirds of test scores.

“The magnet selection priorities will better help these schools meet the magnet objectives,” Cochran said.

The school board gave district staff the go-ahead this week to use the revised selection priorities. The magnet application period will be Jan. 7-22, 2016.

“It’s important for those five schools to fulfill the magnet principles,” said school board Chairwoman Christine Kushner, whose district includes all five affected schools. “It’s a very thoughtful change that’s bringing intentionality to how we group those magnet schools.”

Efforts to reach the PTAs at several of the schools was not immediately successful.

But Keisha Green, the PTA president at Joyner, declined to comment, saying the group was trying to get more information about the change.

Anna Williams, the PTA president at Brooks, said she needed to talk with the leadership of her school and PTA board first.

But Mansfield, the magnet program critic, said the changes are a step in the right direction for those schools.

“I’m really happy to see that they’re addressing the fact that those magnets do not meet the standards for being magnets,” she said.

Although some may not be happy with the change, it’s not as drastic as what was done in the past. In 2007 and 2008, the school board removed magnet programs at six schools that weren’t helping to reduce concentrations of poverty.

The current board has been loath to remove magnet programs and instead has added 11 new magnet schools in the past four years.

“Demagnetization did not have positive results,” Kushner said.

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

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