Unlocking Controlled-Choice Assignment Part 2: Balance with Magnets

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Editor’s note: This story is Part Two of a three-part series. Read Part One. If you have any questions about the controlled-choice assignment plan, feel free to post them on the discussion forum. We will be happy to answer your questions. If we don’t know the answer, we’ll find out from Wake County schools for you.

Wake County’s magnet program was started in 1982 to improve racial integration. Today, it bears the responsibility of integrating race, poverty and achievement more than ever.

The new controlled-choice assignment plan passed by the Wake County School Board earlier this year states the purpose of magnet schools is to “help mitigate the spread of high-poverty schools” and “reduce high concentrations of poverty and support diverse populations.”

The new assignment process itself values balancing schools by student achievement as a substitute for socio-economic status, but it is low on the list of priorities.

With socio-economic diversity no longer a factor in where a child goes to school, magnets are one of the only tools in the new plan to address high-poverty schools. The plan in its current form does not attempt to reduce the current 22 percent of schools where more than 50 percent of students receive free and reduced lunch.

Jayne Fleener, dean of the College of Education at NC State University, said once a school is perceived as being undesirable it is very difficult to change that image.

“It’s hard to retain the best teachers. It’s hard to think about changing cultures,” she said. “Often times the result is that you focus so much on achievement that you make schools less desirable and less interesting and less dynamic for the kids, so it becomes a vicious cycle.”

Magnets, she said, are at the crux of what is keeping Wake County schools strong.

“Right now the positive in Wake County is that we have some really strong magnet schools or schools of choice that parents will continue to send their children to even though they are not in their local neighborhood,” she said.

Different Magnets Do Different Things
The plan establishes three types of magnet schools with one type in particular shouldering the responsibility to prevent high-poverty schools.

Group 1 magnets are located in “historically lower-performing and/or higher-poverty areas.”

Group 2 magnets are located in areas where they can “compete with charter and private schools.”

And Group 3 magnets are located outside Raleigh and “designed to bring specialized programming to those areas.”

Given the different objectives of the magnet groups, each has a different percentage of “magnet” seats — seats for students who do not live nearby — and “proximity” seats.

Group 1 magnet schools are allocated 40 to 45 percent proximity seats and 55 to 60 percent magnet seats.

Group 2 magnet schools are allocated 55 to 60 percent proximity seats. As with Group 1 magnets, these percentages allow the balance to be tipped in favor of higher-performing, lower-poverty areas to keep the schools desirable.

Group 3 schools are allocated just 10 to 20 percent proximity seats.

Elementary Magnet Schools by Group
Group 1 = red
Group 2 = yellow
Group 3 = green

This year, 56 percent of magnet applicants were accepted into a magnet school.

Under the choice plan, those who aren’t accepted to a magnet school during the magnet selection process (Dec. 5–19) will be put on a waiting list. They can still participate in either of the base selection processes (Jan. 17 – Feb. 24 and March 19 – April 9) and they won’t be removed from the waiting list.

Families will find out what their assignment is just after each of the selection processes, but “final assignments” aren’t sent out until mid-May.

View the calendar for the selection process.

Mitigating High-Poverty Schools
To further ensure students in high-poverty areas are assigned to “desirable” schools, students living near Group 1 magnets receive a different choice list during the selection period than other students.

Most students coming into elementary school choose from a list of two traditional calendar schools, two year-round schools and one high-achieving school.

Students living near Group 1 magnets rank their preferences in a list, which includes the two closest Group 1 magnets, one proximate Group 2 magnet, three regional choices (which include year-round, traditional, high-performing and under-enrolled schools), one traditional calendar school and one year-round school.

Who Is Selected?
Students will be selected for magnet schools in much the same way they are selected for a base assignment.

Priority 1: Incoming siblings of current WCPSS students
Priority 4: Group 2 Proximity and Group 3 magnet students rising into 6th or 9th grade that have attended a Group 2 or Group 3 magnet elementary school whose first choice is the magnet middle or high school for their magnet program pathway
Priority 6: Students residing in a node designated as “high-performing” whose first-choice school is a magnet school and/or is located in a low-performing area
Priority 8: Students whose nearest school is severely overcrowded and select a school that is not overcrowded as their first choice

Selection will be based on a list of four priorities taken directly from a larger list of priorities which is essential to the base selection process.

Priority rating will be combined with a random lottery number to create a list of who gets into a particular school as well as to determine the waiting list.

Since some seats are designated as proximity seats those seats will show up in the base choice list for students living near those schools.

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