The Trouble with Magnet Schools

By Veronica

Today I will be standing in line with hundreds of other people in the cold, cold weather for at least two hours, but possibly five. It’s not for a concert or a Broadway show or the latest high tech gadget. We will be standing in line because we hope to get our children into the schools of our choice.

Our city has magnet schools, which means that besides the usual neighborhood public schools, there are other public schools that receive public money for special magnet programs. The magnet program might be a special learning strategy, like Montessori or Paideia, or it might be a language immersion program or a curriculum that includes the performing arts. These magnet schools are open to every child in the city, allowing children from poorer neighborhoods to have a chance at an excellent school, even if their own neighborhood school is in decline.

And our neighborhood school is. When it came time for us to buy a house, we realized that we earned enough money to buy a good house in a run-down neighborhood, but not enough to buy a run-down house in a good neighborhood. My daughter will start school next year, and our neighborhood school is lousy. It is rife with all the problems of poverty, and only a third of the children in grade three could pass the standardized reading proficiency test.

This means that we desperately want to get our daughter into a magnet school. We read about the programs offered, chose the two that looked best for us, and today I go to each of them to fill out the application form on the first day of open enrollment. Magnet schools succeed in part because this application process naturally gives them a higher proportion of involved, interested parents than the neighborhood schools. Magnet schools in our city have also traditionally enrolled students on a first-come, first-serve basis.

That is where the madness begins.

On the date that applications to each school are officially accepted, parents line up outside the school. In the past, that date has been a frigid Monday morning in January. No one is allowed on school grounds while school is in session, but some parents showed up on Friday at closing time and camped out all weekend to assure their child a place in a good school. This year the schools have scheduled applications to begin on a Tuesday evening, so at least no one will be camping overnight.

The obvious problem with this system is that it disadvantages single parents who can’t afford childcare, parents who do not get paid time-off, and parents who are not physically able to wait in line in the cold outdoors. There is talk of switching the process next year to a lottery, so that all interested parents have the same chance of admission.

I am absolutely pro-lottery on this issue, but many of the parents I talk to are not. They usually object that a lottery does not adequately take into account how badly a parent wants a particular school, as if wanting admission and being able to stand in line for it were the same thing. At the root of the objection is a basic fear of losing even more control in a system that already makes us feel somewhat helpless. Despite the fierceness of our desire, we cannot fix the problems of urban poverty and failing schools for our kids; we cannot guarantee our children the education we want them to have.

And so we wait in line and we hope.

Veronica can be found blogging at Toddled Dredge.

19 Responses to The Trouble with Magnet Schools
  1. […] I am sipping my coffee, cuddling my kids, and mentally preparing myself for the ordeals of the day.  I love my city, but today I face one of the less pleasant aspects of it.  Today I run the gauntlet necessary to get JellyBean into a good school.  You can read more about it at 5MFP. […]

  2. Beck
    November 18, 2008 | 10:08 am

    My kids go to what is, in many ways, a bad, bad school. Out of my daughter’s class of 11 kids, she and two others passed the grade three literacy tests. Dopey kids.

  3. Cassie
    November 18, 2008 | 11:03 am

    In my small town we have one preschool and their is a waiting list still! I think good schools should be more available to children. Im crossing my fingers for you! good luck!

  4. Liza's Eyeview
    November 18, 2008 | 11:05 am

    It’s hard to say which one is better – lottery or go in line.

    We have a new program here called STEM ran by a charter school. Only 24 students can be accepted – hundreds would like to get in. Process is lottery and I am so nervous for my son. I desperately would want him in. His is what they call a “twice exceptional” (gifted dyslexic). The STEM program is a perfect fit for him, and I would be devastated if he’s not picked o a lottery because the public school choice is not a it for him. We can’t afford a private school. So this is my soap box 2 cents worth of comment 🙂

  5. Momma
    November 18, 2008 | 3:13 pm

    wow. that is a huge process. and so frustrating! it seems like for a mom who really cares about their children’s education it should be a little easier. I guess that just goes to show how messed up our government and local public schools really are. we are seriously considering homeschooling. lol

    I know where my parent’s live to get in the magnet school there is an application process similar to getting into college. There is an application deadline and then the school board goes through all the applications and sets up interviews. i don’t know what the process should be. maybe the city should take look at all the parents that want their kids in the magnet school and start applying some of those teaching techniques all the regular schools.

  6. Gill
    November 18, 2008 | 4:05 pm

    WOW and OMG. I hope you get the school you want.
    Guess we don’t know how lucky we are in the UK. I have two close local school but didn’t want my kids in either so i applied on paper to one 10 miles away and got number one in last year. Because she was in, they automatically accepted number 2 this year…and in time number 3 will attend. We are so incredibly lucky, i really wish you all the luck in the world with this. I know how important it is to you…because it would be for me.

  7. Jane
    November 18, 2008 | 8:15 pm

    I totally understand why you want a magnet school. I agree the number one difference is the positive parent involvement. However, if all else fails and you don’t get the school of your choice, I teach at a lousy (according to test scores) school with some fantastic teachers and a dedicated and loving staff. While most of our students are EL and perform like socio-economically disadvantaged kids do, each year we hear from former students who got into Stanford, USC and UCLA. Several have come back to teach at our school. The teachers I am thinking of who grew up in the ‘hood went to Princeton, Stanford among other schools. What was the difference? Not the other kid’s parents- but their own. Worse comes to worse, you kids will still do well in the local school.

  8. Alison
    November 18, 2008 | 8:26 pm

    My daughter goes to what’s called a charter school–it’s exactly what you described, though, so I don’t know why it’s not called a magnet school. Until this year people camped out to secure a place, and I was going to do that if I had to–but the school realized it wasn’t fair to those who can’t do it. They didn’t do a lottery, though–instead, everyone who had completed the application process got an access code to a web site whose link was activated at a certain time. I clicked as soon as it opened and we were still number 11. But she did get in.

    I hope JellyBean gets into the school you want.

  9. Patois
    November 18, 2008 | 8:35 pm

    I hear you! For years, the school district’s magnet school did the wait-in-line drill. They stopped it about a dozen years ago when the camp-out period lasted for five days. I do think it’s an unfair system precisely because those who can’t afford to take time off to camp out miss out. I lucked out with the lottery for my eldest, and I’m eternally grateful that he got in. Good luck to JellyBean.

  10. suburbancorrespondent
    November 18, 2008 | 10:47 pm

    There is no excuse for the way they handle the enrollment. Our magnet schools are basically run on the lottery system, with a few quotas in place: a certain percentage come from the school’s district, kids with siblings in the program get priority, etc. You should complain a lot more, it’s not fair to the parents who are not able to stand in line. There is no need to be there physically at all; haven’t these people heard of online enrollment processes?

    Oooh, that burns me up.

  11. Rocks In My Dryer
    November 19, 2008 | 12:04 am

    Let us know how it turns out! Hope it’s good news for your family. I sometimes feel like we live in NeverLand, with a really amazing neighborhood public school. We’re very blessed.

  12. Janice (5 Minutes for Mom)
    November 19, 2008 | 2:52 am

    Our system has gone to a phone in system.(My neighbourhood in Canada.)

    Last year when I needed to get Jackson in to the French Immersion program I had my family help me do NINE phone lines trying to get through. And we did get in. THANK THE LORD!!!

    I would have gone NUTS with the lack of control of the lottery system. I think that effort should play a role. The phone system seems to work here. Kind of like a middle ground. There was a huge snow storm too at the time. I was really glad I didn’t have to wait in line.

  13. […] I stood in line to get JellyBean into a good school. Without going into boring detail about the frustrations of the day, I will tell you that she was successfully registered at our second choice school, and is high on the waiting list for our first choice. We are very pleased. […]

  14. chrissy
    November 19, 2008 | 2:34 pm

    Our neighborhood school is not the greatest, either, and my children attend the magnet school 4 miles away, even though the neighborhood school is 200 feet from my house. They simply have a waiting list according to when the applications are filed, with the deadline being in March before the kindergarten year. You can even submit an application a few years in advance if you wish.

    I feel a little bad sometimes abandoning our neighborhood school. The majority of the children do not speak English coming into kindergarten, and my friends who have put their English-speaking children in the school have expressed that the teachers just can’t possibly keep up with such different levels of needs, so the trend in my neighborhood is for all the stay-at-home white moms to send their kids to the magnet school. I feel a little bit hypocritical doing it, but not enough to change schools.

    Your school’s system does seem antiquated and unfair, not to mention horribly inconvenient.

  15. robbie
    June 25, 2009 | 5:02 pm

    In Austin TX we have a few magnet middle and high schools, they are all application based, the criteria is based on your kids test scores, grades, application questions and teacher recommendations. I think this is the best way. The good kids get in no matter what part of the city they are from. It’s a very diverse school. A lottery system is lame. I tried to get my son in an amazing performing arts school in Minneapolis that had a lottery. His whole district only got 20 slots for all the middle school kids, of course he didn’t get in. At least now he’s in a great magnet school in Austin.

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