It’s the first week back after winter break, which means one thing for the office that oversees Miami-Dade’s ever-expanding menu of magnet schools: sorting through reams of last-minute applications.
“We get 15-or-20,000 of these in the last two weeks. We’re madly processing and entering them into the system,” said Robert Strickland, Miami-Dade’s director of school choice and parental options.
Miami-Dade County Public Schools has been accepting magnet school applications since October, but the Jan. 15 deadline to apply is expected to come with a surge of interest. Students and parents can mail in an application postmarked by the deadline, bring an application to the district’s downtown office or file an application online.
For Strickland, that means a whole lot of paperwork.
For students, it means more choices but also more competition, especially at the most coveted schools.
Today, four decades after the district’s first magnet school opened, nearly 53,000 students attend Miami-Dade’s magnet programs, which will number 375 by year’s end, Strickland said. The programs, housed in 120 schools, specialize in everything from music and architecture to international studies and virtual education. Kindergartners can apply to schools that partner with local museums. Seniors can learn how to program and develop Android and iPhone apps.
Created as a way to desegregate schools, magnet programming has evolved into a means to provide more options for students seeking alternatives to traditional classroom educations or in some cases to their home schools, and a way to compete with private institutions and charter schools.
“Districts want to retain the students they have, and they know they have to up their game,” said Scott Thomas, executive director of the Magnet Schools of America, a membership-based association that represents public magnet schools.
Thomas says magnet schools are experiencing a “renaissance,” as large districts across the country expand their programming.
Miami-Dade, where nearly half the district’s students now attend a “nontraditional” school, is among those districts. This year, the district announced it was opening 36 new programs.
And the trend is an issue of supply and demand.
In 2009, the district received 30,000 magnet applications. One year later, that number was 40,000. Last year, there were 54,000. Students can submit up to five applications for programs at five different schools.
“It’s demand-driven reform,” Strickland said. “That’s why we’ve had an increase in magnet schools the last four years.”
Overall, there are about 15,000 students competing for about 15,000 seats, he said.
In simple math: one-to-one odds. But many students are angling for the same spots at the same schools. And they are selected through a lottery system in order to create equal access, which means uncertainty for thousands of students until results are announced by mail on March 15.
Take Daniella Clavijo, an Epiphany Catholic School eighth-grader applying to the marine-science-based MAST Academy on Virginia Key and the International Baccalaureate program at Coral Reef High School.
Daniella, 13, is looking for a school with a top reputation to boost her credentials when she applies for college in four years. Thousands of other students are looking for the same thing.