Wake County’s magnet school program has been one of the system’s jewels for more than 30 years, but the number of families trying to get their children into the magnets has dropped dramatically in recent years.
Applications are down by a third since 2009. Nearly 3,000 fewer magnet applications were filed for the upcoming school year than in 2009, even as system-wide enrollment has increased by more than 10,000 students.
School leaders say the trend isn’t worrisome for the state’s largest school district because it represents a broadening of its appeal. They say that although changes over the past few years have made non-magnet schools more attractive options, there’s still enough demand for the magnet schools.
However, some supporters of the magnets, which began as a tool to encourage diversity at downtown schools, say the schools are threatened by lowered quality at the magnets and new programs elsewhere in the system.
“We still have more applicants than seats available,” school board member John Tedesco said.
The sentiments were echoed by school board member Jim Martin, who has clashed with Tedesco on some issues. Martin, who has a child at a magnet school, agreed that demand is still strong at magnets.
There was a time when such a sharp decline in applications would have raised sharper concerns. Wake’s current magnet program dates back to 1982 as one piece of the district’s integration efforts.
Unique courses such as enhanced arts and academic electives were offered at schools designated as magnets, most of which were located inside the Raleigh Beltline.
Sabrina Francis said her family moved from Durham in 1995 because of Wake’s magnet program.
“The magnet schools were what really shined,” said Francis, a North Raleigh parent. “That’s why it’s a shame to see what’s happening (with the drop in applications).”
There are 34 magnet schools out of the district’s 170 schools. Wake placed 55 percent of the 6,236 applicants who applied for the 2013-14 school year. Some of the rejected applicants, who were placed on waiting lists, did ultimately get magnet seats.
But this year’s total continues a steady downward progression since the 9,213 applicants in 2009.
Eastern Wake schools have mirrored the countywide decline. Among the three magnets in eastern Wake County – Wendell Elementary, Zebulon Elementary and Zebulon Middle – applications have fallen from 155 in 2011 to just 100 for the upcoming year. At the same time denials have increased. Only 1 application to an eastern Wake County school was denied. This year, school officials turned away 41 applicants.
Various reasons are given for the decline.
Some attribute the dip to the erosion of longtime barriers between magnet and non-magnet schools in recent years. One of the efforts promoted by former Superintendent Tony Tata was the addition of special academic programs – such as foreign languages – at under-enrolled non-magnet schools
“People should have access to emerging programs,” Tedesco said. “It shouldn’t be limited to a specific geographic area.”
But the competition hasn’t sat well with some magnet school supporters.
In surveys conducted this spring to get feedback on hiring a new superintendent, several Wake school administrators complained that these new non-magnet programs have threatened the viability of the magnet program.
“We need to provide high-quality academic offerings at all schools,” Martin counters.
North Raleigh parent Shila Nordone said the modest changes made in the past few years at the non-magnets aren’t enough. She said too many of the non-magnet schools that have large numbers of low-income children still lack need academic programs.
“Our magnet schools offer phenomenal enrichment,” she said. “Our base schools do not.”
The magnets are also facing stiffer competition from charter schools, which are taxpayer-funded public schools that are free of some of the regulations that traditional public schools must follow.
For instance, Francis, the longtime North Raleigh parent, turned down a chance to stay in the magnet program to send her daughter this fall to Longleaf School of the Arts, an arts-themed charter school opening in Raleigh.
“We were always very pleased with magnet schools,” she said. “(But) the fact is they’re starting a new program with something they don’t offer in Wake.”
Other factors cited for the drop in applications include the decrease in student reassignment during the past few years.
Historically, some families wanted to attend a magnet school for stability, as it meant they wouldn’t have to worry about reassignment.
In addition to moving fewer students to different schools, the school board has adopted a “stay where you start” practice. It allows students to stay at the school they’re attending.
“People don’t feel fear and aren’t applying to avoid being reassigned,” said Tedesco, the board member. “They’re now applying because they really want to go.”
Yevonne Brannon, chairwoman of the Great Schools in Wake Coalition, a group that has been trying to preserve the magnet program, said the overall picture looks good in Wake. She said enough people still want to go to magnets while more people are happy with their non-magnet school.
“As long as the magnets are enrolled to capacity and there are waiting lists, it’s a plus,” she said.