Parents in Wake County have a wealth of options for public school choice within the Wake County Public School System through the magnet school program that has been a cornerstone of the school system for more than 35 years.
WCPSS has over 50 magnet schools across its K-12 continuum, and they are designed to achieve multiple important objectives; the most important being advancing academic achievement. Wake’s magnet schools do well on that score, and they are routinely recognized nationally for individual excellence and regularly serve as a model for other school systems to improve their public school performance and school choice options for parents.
The use of magnet schools within WCPSS has evolved over the past four decades. Magnets were initially conceived to fill under-enrolled school buildings with students from full or overcrowded schools. The specific themes were a draw for students of varying economic and ethnic backgrounds which led to a voluntary and gradual racial integration at a time when many major urban school systems around the nation were implementing wildly unpopular forced busing programs.
Wake’s use of magnet schools was unique back then because the program was used so prominently. While some school systems added magnet programs sparingly in exceptional cases, Wake County Public Schools embraced the concept and gave it room to grow and become a viable pathway for students from their first day of kindergarten through their high school graduation. Today, magnets provide a variety of public school choice options for parents in Wake County.
Wake’s Pathway to Integration
Following the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision by the U.S. Supreme Court which ended the “separate, but equal” standard, school systems throughout the country were required to racially balance the schools. North Carolina adopted a choice program in the late 1950s, but it wasn’t until 1960 that the first African American student attended an all-white school. That student, William Campbell of Raleigh, was admitted to the Murphey School in 1960. The choice program wasn’t widely used, and court cases elsewhere in the state forced school districts to more purposefully desegregate their schools.
Historically, there were two school systems here, the Wake County Schools and the Raleigh City Schools. By the early 1970s, the city and county schools were imbalanced after the schools had desegregated. The city school district and the city limits were not the same, meaning some people lived in the city of Raleigh, but their kids went to Wake County Schools. The Raleigh City Schools were losing enrollment to the county schools which were simultaneously becoming overcrowded.
The voters were asked in 1973 to approve a merger of the two systems by referendum, but it was rejected by a landslide. The county commissioners at the time were left with one option, and with the support of the business community the commissioners asked the General Assembly to merge the two school districts by state law. Despite the opposition from families in both school districts, the law passed and WCPSS was created in 1976.
The new unified system gave school leaders the ability to utilize all schools to their capacity, but since the voters in the previous referendum made it clear that they did not want a unified school system, a complete student assignment overhaul would not be received well. Wake also had the benefit of seeing the negative effects of forced integration in other urban school systems including Charlotte-Mecklenburg’s federal court-ordered crosstown busing plan. Wake hoped to avoid similar backlash. That led to the idea of using themed programs which would attract families to schools which were outside of their own neighborhoods. This was working in other cities. Schools with specific themes and an open enrollment model seemed to be working as a natural means to desegregate public schools.
Magnets Are Born and Raised
When the first magnet schools in the U.S. were opened in Tacoma, Wash. and Boston, Mass., they weren’t called magnets. They were referred to as schools of choice. The concept was simple enough. The school district would designate a school as a learning community with a special theme such as creative arts, engineering, or advanced mathematics. The high-quality programming would be enticing to people from all over the school district such that they would choose to attend the school regardless of its previous demographics.
Other cities followed, and eventually the federal government saw the value in “choice” schools. Federal money was sent to districts which implemented the themed choices that became known as magnets to support their themes. Foundations also focused on supporting magnet schools.
Putting the power into the hands of parents to choose the best school for their child was groundbreaking. It also meant that the school communities were strong because the families sending their kids made a deliberate decision to send their children to the school. They were invested in positive outcomes.
When WCPSS opened its first magnet schools in the early 1980s, they were chosen based on several criteria. Schools within the Beltline were most likely to become magnets because they had previously been part of the Raleigh City Schools district, and they needed to increase their enrollment.
Today, the magnet schools are spread throughout the county and they serve as a national model. Each year two dozen or more WCPSS magnets are honored as Schools of Excellence or Schools of Distinction by the Magnet Schools of America. Last year Douglas Creative Arts and Sciences Magnet Elementary was named Best Magnet School in the Nation among all grade levels, and Wiley International Studies Magnet Elementary was named Best Elementary Magnet School in the nation.
In addition to being honored as national models, WCPSS magnets annually are awarded major grant funding. This school year the WCPSS magnet programs received a $14.9 million grant, the largest ever awarded to the system.
These recognitions and investments prove that the WCPSS Magnet Schools are a tremendous value to the school system.
A System Within a System
The way WCPSS uses magnet schools has evolved since it was first implemented. What originally was conceived as a plan to fill schools with low enrollment has become a robust network of themed pathways through the K-12 continuum. It is truly a system within a system. With more than 50 magnet schools and a variety of themes, WCPSS has a school choice for almost every parent. Parents can choose a school for their child’s learning style, and their family will have a stable pathway through the school system regardless of residential growth and assignment zone changes.
Students can enter the magnet ecosystem at any point along their journey through WCPSS. The school system hosts an annual application period each January. Parents can view the options on the WCPSS Magnet Schools website, and they can assess through a new tool their likelihood of being assigned to their first-choice schools. Magnet applications are based on a number of factors which are explained on the magnet application page on the WCPSS website under the “View Application Policies” section.
Perhaps the hardest part of the process for parents is choosing from the many magnet options for their child. There’s too many school choices to make a properly comprehensive list here, but they include the arts, STEM, gifted and talented, engineering and industrial design, language immersion, Montessori, leadership, and International Baccalaureate programs, among others.
The real genius of the magnet programs is that the themes are woven throughout instruction and not just there as mere add-ons the curriculum. The electives are designed to give students the deeper understanding of the theme, and all faculty receive additional professional development to adapt their curriculum and lessons to include the theme’s objectives on a daily basis. This means that teachers at a gifted and talented magnet, for example, offer all students advanced academic opportunities and multiple ways to demonstrate understanding. Students at a creative arts magnet have opportunities to use visual or performing arts in their work products which reinforces the use of creativity in work and life.
Magnet schools truly are a competitive alternative for public school choice in Wake County. They offer unique themes designed to attract students based on their learning styles, can be a stable pathway through the school system in high-growth areas, and these tailored learning communities serve as an option for families who are looking for a school that has different opportunities than their base school assignment.