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.
MAST Principal Jane Garraux said the school traditionally fields more than 1,200 applications for about 120 seats (an expansion will boost that number next year.) Coral Reef High School, which has six magnet academies, receives about 5,000 applications and has a constant waiting list, Strickland said.
“It’s an uncertainty,” said Elizabeth Clavijo, Daniella’s mother.
The competition even extends to the youngest of students.
Milagros Diaz-Cardenas, for instance, wants her 4-year-old daughter, Samantha Carrera, to attend Brickell’s Southside Elementary, a museum magnet school. Last year,140 kindergartners applied but only 44 received letters of acceptance.
“I have faith that she will get chosen,” Diaz-Cardenas said.
Some parents find the waiting nerve-racking.
Trish Bruno remembers breaking down in tears last year when she received a last-minute call that her son Connor Bruno, who was put on a waiting list for the Design Architecture Senior High, was eventually accepted. As applicants to a visual performing arts program, DASH students must audition after they are selected by lottery, and not every student chosen by lottery is accepted.
“I cried like a baby I was so excited,” said Bruno, who is now going through the same process with Connor’s 14-year-old twin, Enzo Bruno.
She said she is in search of a more creative environment for Enzo, who has applied to DASH and the New World School of the Arts.
Margaret Haun, lead teacher at MAST Academy on Virginia Key, describes the specialty that the Bruno family seeks as an “educational hook” that has been successful in creating demand for magnet schools.
She said at MAST, that hook is science. But it’s the “quality education” and unique opportunities and connections, such as a close relationship with the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, that draw students and parents to the school even if they don’t intend to make science a career.
“There’s opportunities to do things in a unique environment that other schools with more traditional setups just don’t have,” she said. “We’ve had math classes and English classes on the bay, or gone out in kayaks for poetry readings.”
With passions running high for certain schools, Strickland said the district continues to create new programming, sometimes by replicating existing programs. For instance, he said the science-themed MAST program is so popular that the district copyrighted the name and opened two new academies in Homestead and Hialeah.
So applicants should be aware that there may be an alternative to their first choice. He also said parents should keep faith that being on a waiting list doesn’t mean their child won’t get in to their preferred school.
“Schools keep going down their waiting list,” he said. “We have people accepted even into August.”