Eastern Wake may get more magnet schools. But will that lure families out of charters?

Wake County has won a federal grant to help start a magnet program at East Wake High School in Wendell, N.C.

Wake County could significantly expand magnet school offerings in eastern Wake to compete against area charter schools and private schools.

Wake school administrators presented this week a proposal to add magnet school programs to East Wake High School in Wendell and Wendell Middle School. Administrators also want to revise the magnet school themes at Zebulon Middle School and Wendell and Zebulon elementary schools.

The proposal comes as multiple charter schools and private schools have opened in northeastern and eastern Wake to compete for the new families moving into the area. The district’s enrollment has slowed over the past decade and dropped since the pandemic.

Administrators want to offer a mix of science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM) offerings at the five eastern Wake schools.

“A lot of our families .... are moving there for the shiny and new homes, but our schools are not shiny and new,” Kimberly Lane, Wake’s senior director for Magnet & Curriculum Enhancement, told the school board’s student achievement committee on Wednesday. “So what can we do in terms of programming, lifting up opportunities for the families to see rigor?”

The full school board could approve the schools as soon as Feb. 21.

Competing for families

Since 1982, Wake has used the magnet program to diversify school enrollments, fill under-enrolled schools and provide additional educational opportunities. Magnet schools offer programs typically not found at regular schools, such as advanced arts and foreign language courses.

Wake has magnet programs at 58 of its 198 schools. Wake has increasingly used magnet schools to promote diversity in lieu of involuntarily busing students to balance school enrollments.

Lane said the five eastern Wake schools were chosen based on factors such as their academic scores and having a high percentage of low-income students. She said the recommended themes for the five schools come from talking with the business community and surveys with parents.

Zebulon Elementary and Zebulon Middle would add the AIG Basics program, where academically and intellectually gifted students are grouped together for math and language arts classes. AIG Basics also offers extensive electives, so Lane said they’d look at courses with a science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) theme.

Wendell Elementary would see its theme revised to creative arts and design. Wendell Middle would also share that theme.

Wendell Middle and Zebulon Middle would feed into East Wake High, which would have a STEAM theme.

Unlike most Wake magnet schools, the five schools will only be open for students who live in their base attendance area, Lane said. She said they want to bring back families who are at charter schools and private schools while not taking students away from other district schools.

“We are trying to win back base families,” Lane said.

‘School within a school’

Wake’s magnet program has won multiple national accolades. This week, Wake announced that 44 schools had received national awards from Magnet Schools of America, a trade organization.

Lane said the district considers base students to be magnet students just like the magnet application students. But during Wednesday’s committee meeting, school board members Monika Johnson-Hostler and Tyler Swanson said that is not the reality.

“Those (base) students know that there is a different level of privilege for magnet students in the building and those students who are magnet students make sure they know that,” Johnson-Hostler said.

Johnson-Hostler, a former magnet parent, said the PTAs are “magnet parent PTAs” with inconvenient meeting times for base parents. She said teachers mean the application students when they talk about “these are my students.”

Swanson noted that students of color account for many of the base students..

Johnson-Hostler said people at the magnet schools need to acknowledge there’s a “school within a school” and that it’s not “one school” before changes in the culture can be made.

“We have to own the system does not work for our base students — not in the way that we’re portraying,” Johnson-Hostler said..

Federal funding

Administrators want to fund the new magnet school offerings by applying for a federal grant designed to promote school integration. But as part of the application, Wake would have to agree to operate the new and revised magnet schools even if it doesn’t win the grant.

Wake has won $88 million since 1985 from the federal Magnet School Assistance Program.

In October, Wake won a $13.5 million grant to start magnet programs at Wildwood Forest Elementary in Raleigh and Wake Forest Elementary. The grant will also pay for changing the themes at Centennial Campus and East Millbrook middle schools in Raleigh.