9 things I wish I knew before applying for the magnet school lottery

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Every year, after getting my daughter’s student assignment letter, I begin getting a little nostalgic, and this year was no different.

When kindergarten started getting close, my husband and I began researching schools. Our lease was ending shortly before the school year started, so we had the rare opportunity to pick our next place based on its neighborhood school.

The plan was to narrow down the long list of elementary schools by some basic criteria, map out their assignment boundaries, and find a place accordingly. Our criteria? Test scores at the district average, and diverse. That’s it.

Things didn’t really go according to plan.

We quickly learned that a diverse school with district-average test scores was a pretty rare find. So we started getting a little more creative with our list: Well, maybe the scores aren’t quite there but growth is trending in the right direction; well, maybe we should adjust how we define “diverse,” and so forth.

We researched for months.

Eventually, we got around to including magnet schools to our list, too, particularly because transportation zones would make the housing search a whole lot easier. Plus, they tend to perform well and have a more diverse student population than neighborhood schools.

And even though we started almost a year beforehand, in many ways, we felt like we were already behind.

So if you’re just starting down your path to figure all of this out, you’re in luck. (I’m about to save you some time and frustration.)

(1) Visit schools.

Neighborhood and magnet schools alike. A school’s vibe doesn’t always match its reputation. So, for example, we thought we really liked the idea of an LI/TD school, but when we visited, it just didn’t seem like a good fit for our little one. And on the other hand, there was a neighborhood school that didn’t sound too great on paper, but we visited anyway, and we loved it. Bottom Line: You don’t really know until you go!

(2) You only get waitlisted at your top choice.

When you apply, you get to throw your name into the hat for three different schools. But if you don’t get in to any of these schools, you’ll only be waitlisted at one — your first choice school. Strategize accordingly!

(3) It (mostly) doesn’t matter where you live.

Magnet schools are grouped in color-coded zones, but that’s for transportation. If you don’t live in the right transportation zone for the school, that’s okay. It just means that your child would not be eligible to ride the bus. (Mostly. Read on…)

(4) The lottery is random but also “weighted.”

Priority is given to families that live within 1/3 of a mile from the school, and slightly less priority is given to families that live within the transportation zone for the school. Also, keep in mind that magnet programs guarantee entrance for siblings, decreasing the number of available spaces (and your chances of getting in).

(5) Bookmark the GeoPortal.

You can look up the transportation zone for any address in the county. Since we were trying to find a school and a place to live at the same time, this was an indispensable tool.

(6) School performance data is not all it’s cracked up to be.

First of all, data about school performance is located in a bunch of different areas. But perhaps most importantly, it’s not always easy or straightforward to interpret. (That’s probably a whole other article, though.) But this is yet another reason that visiting a school is critical. At any rate, if you decide to slip down this rabbit hole, here are some useful resources:

  • EVAAS – Measures student growth by school, but available data only goes back to 2013
  • NC School Report Cards – The “School Snapshot” is your best bet if you want the most information for the fewest clicks. Also, the archived report cards give you slightly different information, like three-year trends.

Image via N.C. Department of Public Instruction

(7) There are so many choices!

Which is awesome. It means there’s an opportunity to find a program that will suit your child. However, it’s also a lot of work to figure out the landscape, particularly because some programs even have additional application requirements. So, be sure to read up on the fine print of a program. (Have I mentioned that you should visit?) So, not only is there time and effort invested, but there’s also a lot of hope invested in something that you have very little control over.

(8) Sometimes things don’t make sense.

Don’t expect them to; just go with it. For example, you would expect to be able to apply for a magnet school on a CMS web page called “Applying to a Magnet School.” (Nope.) Or, see how this map of transportation zones also points out where all the schools are? Well, if a school on this map is located within a certain color zone, that doesn’t necessarily mean it serves that zone. To get that information, you’re better off referencing the School Options Guide. (I know…)


Image via Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools

(9) CMS has two lotteries each year.

You can apply in both, but then things get even more confusing. Long story short, apply in the first one. You have until 10 p.m. on Monday, January 25 to get it done.

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Brittany Stone
Linguist. Fan of bookstore smells, hip hop, my backpack, and democracy. Freelance thinker. Beyoncé enthusiast.