Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Making it Easy for Parents

The unique "magnet" goal, attracting students away from their neighborhood attendance zone, requires special effort based on careful and informed planning. To motivate parents to abandon their traditional role of accepting an assigned slot for their student and, instead, to actively seek out information about the best choice for their child, and to prompt them to grapple with requirements and application steps, districts need to make the whole process as easy as possible. Appealing to choice is key here. "When people choose to be somewhere, their attitude is different," observes a Hot Springs magnet coordinator. Yet at the same time, enrollment must be regulated to ensure that attendance is balanced demographically. Districts go about managing this tension in different ways. As noted earlier, some districts allow schools to establish selective admission criteria-minimum grade-point average, test scores, behavioral history, auditions, or portfolio presentations. But the basic approach, varying across districts and particular schools according to specific recruitment needs and goals, is to use a random selection process, guaranteeing fairness. The promotional activities described earlier should spell out both the application steps and the criteria for acceptance

Streamline the application process

The application process should be consistent, predictable, and transparent. Procedures should be simple, user-friendly, and disseminated to every parent. In Hamilton and Wake, parents can apply online or they can pick up applications at any magnet school or at the Department of education. By calling Magnet School Services (at Wake, it's the Magnet Resource Center) they can request that an application be mailed to them. The annual application process varies from district to district. Parents receive a letter of confirmation within 10 working days, including a confirmation number to keep for future reference.

Houston's "Magnet Programs" folder contains application information in both English and Spanish. Parents can also obtain applications online or at individual campuses or by calling the district. As in many districts, the process of exploring and then applying to schools starts in November with applications due in January. Applicants are notified of their status by April 1 and must commit by April 15. To help ensure that parents know all the important dates, Houston produces a one-page information sheet, "Magnet Dates and Deadlines" (see figure 8).

As in many magnet districts, the Hot Springs magnet application asks parents to provide and rank their top three choices (see figure 9). Because there are only four elementary school magnets (with one middle and one high school), this approach effectively identifies parents' least favorite option as well. Montclair has taken a similar approach, asking parents to rank schools in order of preference from their first to their last choice. This way parents are also indicating the school they least want their child to attend, and the magnet office can take that into consideration as it makes assignments. This revised process has reportedly increased satisfaction among parents.

Make decision-making clear and consistent

Complete fairness and strict guidelines are also imperative in the admission process. Looking across an entire district, selection criteria can seem complicated. That's because the criteria can vary from school to school and the selection dynamic is not one-dimensional but complex. A magnet school, by definition, seeks at least some voluntary enrollment from beyond regular attendance zones, resulting in a school population that is racially, ethnically, or otherwise representative of the district. But a school's definition of that diversity is determined by a host of factors, ranging from district priorities (eliminating a particular socioeconomic imbalance, for instance) to the nature of the magnet school's quest for academic excellence. Hamilton, for example, has been struggling to maintain a base of students from middle-class families, using magnets in part to draw students back from upper-middle-class private or parochial schools. Wake defines "appropriate and reasonable" diversity as ensuring that individual schools will not reflect a free or reduced lunch ratio higher than 40 percent and that fewer than 25 percent of students will be achieving below grade level.

In Houston, the only qualification requirement for students seeking entrance into one of its 43 regular elementary school magnets is that they have a record of satisfactory conduct. Each secondary school uses a matrix developed to reflect the requirements of the individual program. Minimally, the matrix includes grades, test results, and conduct history. To qualify to audition for the secondary fine arts programs, students must have both satisfactory conduct and a 78 grade average over the previous two years. The results of the audition determine if a student is accepted. Vanguard programs at the elementary, middle, and high school levels are for students identified as being gifted and talented, so students must qualify on the gifted and talented matrix.

Wake's magnet program differs from many in that it offers a range of magnet types (which it calls programs), some of which, although not all, are implemented at multiple schools. For example, among its elementary schools, eight are designated as "gifted and talented" magnets, nine offer a year-round calendar, and two are identified as creative arts and science magnets. Applicants must request a program type (e.g., year-round) rather than a specific school. With the exception of one program type, there are no special admissions requirements. Assignments are based on the following criteria: date of postmark on application, transportation patterns, sibling priorities, school capacity, classroom capacity, socioeconomic diversity, and present magnet status of applicant.

Figure 8. Houston Magnet Dates and Deadlines

November 1, 2003


- For interested parents and students

- Hattie Mae White Administration Building Mall

- Middle School from 9 am until 10:30 am

- Elementary School from 11:00 am until 12:30 pm

- High School from 1:00 pm until 2:30 pm

November 3-7, 2003


- Tours daily for parents available at each Magnet

- 9:00 am daily

October, 2003
January, 2004


- Magnet high school coordinators present @ all middle

November 3, 2003 - All Magnet programs
January 14, 2004
- All Magnet programs
April 1, 2004 - Parents notified by mail of status of student's application(s).
April 14, 2004 - Parent notifies Magnet school of choice of student
"intent to attend."


Figure 9. Hot Springs Magnet School Application

Hot Springs School District logo

For official use only:

Date received:
Application #:

Elementary School Magnet Application
(Please Print or Type)

Student Name: ___________________________________________
                       Last                      First                      Middle

Social Security Number ___-___-___ Date of Birth ____/____/___

Grade Level as of September 3, 2003: ____ Gender: Female Male

Ethnicity:   Asian   Black   Hispanic   Am. Indian   White

Street Address: ______________City: ____ State: ___ Zip: ____
Actual residence street address - no P.O. boxes

Mailing Address: _____________City: ____State: ____ Zip: ___
          (if different from above)

Home Phone: _____________Work Phone: _______________
                                 Please indicate which parent works at number.

Magnet Programs Desired
(Please number your choices 1, 2 and 3)
  Gardner Math-Science-Technology Magnet School (K-5) Sibling attends
  Langston Aerospace & Environmental Studies Magnet School (K-5) Sibling attends
  Oaklawn Visual Performing Arts Magnet School (K-5) Sibling attends
  Park International Studies Magnet School (K-5) (pending IB auth.) Sibling attends

Does this student receive services under P.L. 94-142 (Special Education)? Yes No

Will your child require bus transportation? Yes No

I give permission to the current school my child attends to release any information needed to complete processing of this application.

Parent's signature: ______________________________________

Please mail to:
Hot Springs School District
P.O. Box 6473
Hot Springs, Arkansas 71902-6473
For any questions or additional information, call:
(501) 624-3372 or any Magnet School
You will be notified by letter of your child's school assignment.

In Montclair, all schools operate as magnets, which means all parents must apply on behalf of their children. The Montclair assignment system gives priority to certain applicants: students residing in the neighborhood surrounding a magnet school, those who have a sibling already attending the school, or those from one of the magnet school's "feeder" schools. Such priorities counter the impression that magnet schools unfairly limit access to neighborhood students. Once all priority students have been placed in a particular magnet school, its remaining seats are filled strictly by lottery.

Although some parents may become frustrated when their child is not admitted to their first choice school, making exceptions can be hazardous for a district. Duval maintains careful records, making sure all necessary dates and other application information are documented. The district's logic is that if it makes one exception, the floodgates will open for subsequent requests. Similarly, Wake offers no appeal for a denial. While Hamilton still receives a few complaints each year, its lottery process has generated positive feedback for its fairness from most community members.

Work out transportation

Getting the word out about a compelling theme and providing a consistent equitable application and assignment process, while key, are only part of the equation for getting the desired student enrollment mix. Parents also make choices based on such factors as their child's need for individualized or special help, safety concerns, starting times, location, the reputation of a school's principal and staff, and high on the list, the availability and reliability of transportation. Most of the magnet school districts in this guide have developed a system to aid parents in transporting their children to school- a massive task often easier said than done-requiring funds, careful planning, cooperation across schools, and some ingenuity.

Transportation is a huge challenge for Montclair, costing the district $2.5 million more than it gets back from the state. Duval's goal of providing transportation to any magnet school student in the 850-square-mile district requires an extensive busing system. The task is complicated by the fact that a river runs through the area, limiting the possible routes to get a child from one location to another. Duval maximized its available buses by pairing schools together to share a bus route and by creating hub schools where students can be dropped off to catch another bus to their final destination.

This hub system is a prime example of how teacher and staff collaboration is integral to the success of the district's magnet program. Getting buy-in from teachers and other school staff who work at the hub schools is crucial because it is these teachers and staff members who must make the hub system work, ensuring that all children make an easy and secure transfer to their buses. Because these students do not attend the hub school, the adults who help them make their bus connection are assuming extra responsibility, going beyond their primary job duties. Clearly, teachers and staff members across the district must be completely committed to the hub system in order for this type of transportation option to be effective.

Some Duval magnet students travel long distances to attend a particular magnet school, and many travel into portions of the inner city that may be perceived as dangerous whether or not they really are. Duval recognizes the importance of addressing parental concerns about their child's daily journey, understanding that safety is the number one concern of all parents. In addition to providing catalogs and brochures to address as many transportation questions as possible, district staff contact each magnet school family upon their child's acceptance to inform them about bus stop locations and pick-up and drop-off times and to answer any questions.

Transportation for Houston's programs is an equally large-scale effort requiring the cooperation and ingenuity of several departments, including the Magnet Department and Pupil Transfer and Transportation Services, and school-based administrators. Houston receives approximately $19 million from the state from desegregation busing funds that cover 50 percent of the district's transportation-related costs. Each school day, the 1,100-bus fleet travels 900 routes to 280 campuses serving approximately 40,000 students, 16,000 of them magnet students.

Before each school year begins, Houston parents and administrators are informed of each student's transportation route. Magnet program students who live more than two miles away from their campus are eligible for round-trip transportation between district-designated centralized bus stops and their assigned campuses. To ensure that all students arrive at their assigned school without missing instructional time, the district operates on a staggered bell schedule.

Four years ago, Houston set up an online transportation information system, jointly developed by its transportation and technology departments. It features route sheets by motor pool and school, bus stop locations for all schools, student registration forms, and bus roster data. On Mondays, Transportation Department updates are posted and on Wednesdays any changes are made to routes, schedules, and other transportation events. District and school administrators are able to request transportation, check on the status of buses and routes, view particular student routes, and make other inquiries online directly to the transportation department.

Wake offers two transportation options to students living more than 1.5 miles from school, as well as to students with special needs. One option is door-to-door service, which, like a traditional country bus system, picks students up at home and returns them there at the end of the day. The other option is express transportation. In this system, parents are responsible for getting students to a collection point, such as another school, a library, or the YMCA, and picking them up there at day's end. The district then transports students back and forth between this collection point and their assigned school. Wake parents can also fill out a transportation service request form to appeal for a bus stop location or inclusion on a specific route.

Summary for Making It Easy for Parents

  • Streamline the application process
  • Make decision-making clear and consistent
  • Work out transportation

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006