Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Wake County Public School System, North Carolina

Districtwide Enrollment 108,970
Magnet Enrollment 25,130 (23%)
Total Number of Schools 127
Number of Magnet Schools 43
District Size (in Square Miles) 832
Population Type Urban Fringe of Large City

In 1976, the predominantly minority urban school district in Raleigh, North Carolina merged with the Wake County Public School System, a predominantly nonminority rural district. The new district implemented a magnet school program in 1982 as part of a voluntary desegregation plan, beginning with 13 schools. Since then the magnet program has grown quickly, to 50 magnet schools in 2004-05. This rapid growth is partially due to very high growth rates in the district in general. The district has been growing by approximately 3,500 students every year and is projected to have a student population of approximately 160,000 by 2020.

Wake takes an unusual approach to its magnet program. Instead of each magnet school having a unique theme within the district, a number of individual themes are available at more than one school. For example, a number of schools offer the "magnet" of a year-round school calendar. So instead of applying to a specific school, a student essentially applies for a particular theme and is then assigned to whichever school offering this theme is nearest to his or her home address.

In 1997, Wake schools began using a computer selection model to manage the admissions process for magnet schools. Applicants to magnet programs are selected through a weighted lottery. While diversity is still a criterion for selection, in 1997 race was removed from the selection process and the district now uses socioeconomic status as a key indicator for diversity. The last 10 percent of available seats at any magnet school are chosen totally at random after the "weighted" priority list.

Some members of the community served by Wake do not support the magnet school program and would like to see a return to a neighborhood school system. However, a computer model designed to model what would happen if Wake returned to such a system revealed that the schools would become resegregated.

Despite the criticism some community members have, there continues to be a very high demand for the magnet program. For the 2004-05 school year, Wake received 6,883 applications for the magnet programs; 42.9 percent were accepted and 57.1 percent denied. The year-round schools received 4,299 applications; 40.6 percent were accepted and 59.4 were denied. Second round offers are made to students if space is available.

As in many other districts, community partnerships have greatly impacted magnet schools. The Centennial Magnet Middle School, for example, is actually located on the campus of North Carolina State University. The students, parents, and teachers of this magnet school frequently interact with the faculty and students and make use of the facilities of the university.

Wake County has a magnet office with a staff of 11 people. The senior director of magnet programs is responsible for the entire magnet program. The senior administrator of magnet curriculum works with all magnet schools to help them develop curriculum and implement their themes. This person meets regularly with magnet program coordinators at each campus to address all magnet issues. The magnet marketing and communications coordinator designs marketing and recruiting strategies.

While the magnet office has direct responsibility for the magnet program and magnet school operations, constant collaboration between the magnet office and other district departments, such as the office of growth management, curriculum and instruction, evaluation and research, human resources, and transportation, is critical to the program's success. The curriculum and instruction office ensures that magnet courses address state standards, and the communications department assists with magnet marketing and recruitment efforts by coordinating media outreach. The student selection process is run through the office of growth management, which is completely disconnected from the magnet office.

The magnet program has its own budget and disperses money to the schools. Magnet schools can also write their own grants and solicit community partnerships to help bring in more funding. The schools also seek parental support to create alternative funding mechanisms. Federal grants, Title V money, and limited local contributions have helped support the magnet program to date.

The Wake superintendent sees the district's magnet schools as incubators of innovation. He credits the magnets with having had a positive impact on the entire district because they have created a culture of healthy competition between schools within the district, which he believes has made all schools stronger. As a testament to this belief, the district cites the fact that in 2003, 91.3 percent of students tested at or above grade level, up from 81.9 percent in 1998. Also, the gap in achievement scores between white, African American, and Native American students is narrowing, especially for K-8 students.

According to the superintendent, the success of Wake's magnet program can be attributed to the following:

  • Commitment by district leadership. Both the school board and top district administrators support the program.

  • Dedicated magnet program office. Having a magnet-focused administrative structure has facilitated magnet implementation.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006