Is it time to fill all of Wake County's magnet seats by random lottery?
That's the position articulated at last week's school board meeting by Jennifer Mansfield, a longtime critic of the magnet selection process and a leader of the Wake Schools Community Alliance. She urged the board to eliminate the guidelines which give priority to applicants from crowded schools.
Mansfield argued that the crowding component should be removed to give applicants an equal shot of getting accepted. Currently, only 10 percent of seats are randomly filled but even that comes with some strings that I'll get into later in the post.
Before last year, the school system used magnet selection criteria designed to give priority to applicants from crowded and low F&R schools. But as part of the community schools directive passed in March, socioeconomic status was dropped from the magnet and year-round application process.
The result is that school capacity is king, once you factor in siblings. Before any seats are filled, siblings are placed automatically. Some magnet schools will have few openings this year once the siblings are placed.
Last year's criteria had the first two rounds favor applicants wanting to leave base schools that are at 95 percent of capacity. Round three drops to 90 percent and round four falls to 85 percent.
The rationale is that one of the objectives of the magnet program is to maximize use of school facilities. The idea has been to get students out of crowded schools in the suburbs into what would probably be an underenrolled school if not for the magnet program.
As before 10 percent of seats are randomly filled. But Laura Evans, senior director of growth and planning, told members of the school board's student assignment committee in June something about the how the 10 percent of seats are filled that may not be so widely known.
Evans explained that the 10 percent is filled only from applicants who don't fall within the first four rounds. They're called non-priority applicants.
What happens, Evans said, is they go as deep as they can in the first four rounds to fill the 90 percent of seats. But if that 90 percent is filled very quickly, you're out of luck, especially if you're in round 3 or 4. It's possible a really popular magnet school will fill up the non-random seats within the first two or three rounds.
Let's imagine you're a round 4 applicant at a base school that's between 85 and 90 percent of capacity. You won't be considered at all when they randomly fill the 10 percent of seats. So you have to hope that the other 90 percent of seats aren't filled in the first three rounds to have a shot of getting into the magnet program.
Evans said they only fill the random seats by people who aren't in the first four rounds so as not to lessen the chances for the non-priority applicants.
Eric Blau, who was on the student assignment committee at the time, said the guidelines meant that the people applying from schools at less than 85 percent of capacity could have a better chance than the Round 4 people.
School board member Anne McLaurin countered that Round 4 people could have a greater chance of getting into some magnet schools that the non-priority people.
Blau replied that the problem is people don't know how many other people have applied so don’t know what their odds are of getting accepted.
Jumping ahead in time to last week's public comment session, Mansfield gave reasons for why the crowding numbers shouldn't be used.
Mansfield cited how the Daniels Middle School parents successfully lobbied the school board out of reassigning 97 of 170 students into the school by citing cafeteria crowding. Mansfield said Wake's figures would show that Daniels isn't crowded.
Mansfield also brought up how Wakefield High wouldn't be considered crowded because of all the classroom trailers.
Mansfield then pointed to how applicants trying to leave year-round schools are hurt by the crowding figures. She said that half of the schools that would fall into the random 10 percent category are underutilized year-round schools.
Click here to view the crowding figures that would likely be used to fill magnet schools this year.
School board members haven't indicated whether they'd make any changes. The magnet application period starts Feb. 21. But as last year showed, the board can always change the selection guidelines after the application period ends.