Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Magnet Schools

When you have kids, you don’t realize exactly how many decisions you have to make just by the time they’re 5 or 6 years old (let’s not even talk about how many decisions you have to make by the time they’re adults and start making decisions for themselves!). It starts with the brand of diapers to use and breastfeeding versus bottle feeding and doesn’t stop. Before you realize it, you have to decide on where to enroll them in school. For most families, the days where there’s only one elementary school in town are over. Most of us have a slew of choices when it comes to schools – from traditional public schools to magnet schools, charter schools, and private schools. And there’s also the option of home schooling.

One great option in the public school system is a magnet school. You may not have considered a magnet school. You may not know what they are or whether they even exist in your area. They’re not offered in every school district, but if you’re lucky enough to have magnet schools in the mix, they’re definitely not an option to overlook.

So What Exactly are Magnet Schools?


Magnet schools are public schools that enhance the required core curriculum with a school-wide theme or focus area. Common magnet school themes include Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM), Fine and Performing Arts, International Baccalaureate, International Studies, and language immersion programs. For example, in a STEM magnet school, you would see technology being woven into the curriculum more or see more connections between other subjects and science or math than in a traditional elementary school. You might even see a partnership between the school and the engineering department of a local university.

These themes act as a “magnet” to attract families. Magnet schools were first offered in the 1960’s and 1970’s in an attempt to desegregate schools by offering voluntary enrollment in schools with alternative programs like Montessori-style educational settings or career pathways. That’s where the themes come in to play. You might want to expose your kids to different cultures or languages, so you consider a magnet school with an international studies or Spanish language emersion focus across town. Or your neighbor may want her kids exposed to the arts as much as possible, so she wants them to go to a performing arts focused magnet school. Other parents from across the district want the same exposure for their kids, so your children end up going to school with kids from all across the city rather than just kids from your surrounding neighborhoods.

When this idea was first being implemented in the 60’s and 70’s, school systems were trying to combat the families who were putting their kids into private schools or moving to the suburbs in an effort to avoid the forced desegregation of schools. When offered the chance to voluntarily enroll their kids in these new and focused programs, families bought into the idea and the schools were successful. Because kids are drawn from all over the district, magnet schools still provide the benefit of having a diverse student body.

How to Choose a Magnet School


Now that you know what they are, how do you go about deciding on and choosing a magnet school? Most school districts with magnet schools try to make it easy for you because they want you to enroll your kids in these schools. Large districts often host magnet fairs where representatives, and oftentimes parents who currently have kids enrolled, from all of the magnet schools in the district set up tables so you can walk around and find out more about what the different schools have to offer. Throughout the year, each of the magnet schools typically host a few tours where prospective parents can take a guided tour around the school and see classrooms in action. So tour a bunch. See what your district has to offer.

Check your school system’s website for information on the magnet schools in your area and for a calendar of events.

Choosing which one appeals to you and your family is up to you. Think about the classroom environment – does your child do better in an alternative classroom set up with various types of desks and chairs to choose from, or would a traditional classroom be a better fit? How does the school integrate the magnet theme into everyday curriculum? What helps your child learn best? Do you want the idea of global citizenry reinforced in your child’s classroom? Is it important that technology is integrated into the classroom daily? Do you want your child exposed to a foreign language on a daily or weekly basis? Although magnet schools are free public schools, they offer this type of flexibility and access to programs you don’t typically find in a traditional public school. 

No one else can tell you what type of school environment is best for your family. So think about what your family values about education and trust your gut. If you’re looking for something a little more than what a traditional public school has to offer, a magnet school may be a good option. 

Enrollment 101


Here are the basics when it come to enrolling in a magnet school. Families are given the option to apply for enrollment at a magnet school even if it’s not their assigned “base” school. Meaning, if you like a magnet school across town, you can apply there even though that’s not the school your kids would attend based on where you live. Magnet schools give you the freedom to apply no matter where it’s located in your school district.

But that freedom does come with a catch. If you enroll your children in a magnet school that’s not your assigned school, you will not typically be provided transportation. The school system just doesn’t have the resources to drive kids all around town every day. So if you love that STEM school across town, you’re going to have to drive your daughter there every morning and pick her up every afternoon.

Are there exceptions to every rule? Certainly. Some school districts offer something called “neighborhood busing” for certain magnet schools. In these cases, a bus picks up and drops off kids in the area at a central location. So rather than driving your children to school, you’d drive them to a set location closer to your house where the bus picks up/drops off all the kids in the area going to that magnet school. So be sure to ask about transportation for each school you’re considering when you attend the magnet fair or magnet tours. 

Each district will have its own set of rules about magnet school enrollment, so be sure to check your school system’s website for the specific application process you need to follow. It’ll likely go something like this:

  1. You choose a magnet school you want your child to attend. And in some cases a back up school in case your first choice is full.
  2. By a set date, you submit an application for your chosen school. Some school districts will have you rank up to three choices in the event that your first or second choice does not have space available. Then you wait.
  3. Each school district will have its own set of selection criteria for deciding which students get available spots in magnet schools. Typically there’s a ranking system that gives different priority levels to students who’ve applied. For instance, first priority may be given to incoming students with siblings already enrolled at the school. Second priority may be given to students who live in a certain area based on socioeconomic status (remember, magnet schools exist to promote diversity). The ranking system will go on and on until all of the available spots at any given school are filled.
  4. You’ll be notified by the school system about whether or not your child received one of the available spots.
  5. What happens next varies by school district. Some districts will open up more spaces later in the spring and notify additional applicants of acceptance. But for the most part, all you have left to do at this point is wait for the school year to start!

Some magnet schools have such a stellar reputation that the fight for spots is more competitive than at others. So do your research and look at your chances of getting into your chosen magnet school. Look at the selection criteria and see where your child ranks on the list. Don’t be discouraged if your child doesn’t meet the top selection criteria, because you don’t know who else will apply, but do be realistic about your chances. If you have the chance to select a back up, do it! Pick a second school that you’d be just as happy to have your child attend, but not one that wouldn’t work for your family because of the bell schedule or transportation issues.

If you take the time to do a little research and look at your options, you might be surprised at just how many options you actually have in the public school system.

Does thinking about getting out the door for school in the morning give you heartburn? Check out 5 Time Saving Tips for Your Morning Routine.

Photo credits: Three students by US Department of Education (CC); Children in Classroom by Skokie Northshore Sculpure Park (CC); Science Class by Brookhaven National Lab (CC); School Bus by Tomash Devenishek (CC).

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Michelle Frick

Michelle lives in North Carolina with her husband and their exuberant son. Having grown up in New England, she's a fan of hockey and the Boston Red Sox. During baseball season you can usually find her and her boys cheering on the Durham Bulls. When she isn't listening to a detailed explanation about Minecraft, she enjoys reading, drinking coffee, and running half marathons.

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