For Broward parents, sorting through the more than 60 public school magnet programs now available — options as varied as architecture or marine science, ranging from kindergarten to high school — might seem like a daunting task. But with the help of school open houses, informative online web chats, and the time remaining before the Feb. 13 application deadline, finding the right program can be easy, experts say.
“Just do your homework,” advises Lucia Troche, a social studies teacher at Driftwood Middle School in Hollywood, which offers a health-and-wellness themed magnet program. “Come to the school. Have a tour so you can see what it is like on a daily basis.”
Driftwood held its parent open house last week, but most others have yet to do so, meaning parents have a wealth of visiting opportunities remaining before the application deadline. At Driftwood, parents and prospective students were greeted at the door by the boisterous sounds of the school’s jazz band.
Once inside, families mingled with Driftwood’s six-foot-tall red cardinal mascot, and parents posed questions to a small army of gathered teachers and administrators. Students played interactive learning games, plucked strawberries from Driftwood’s “Environmental Wellness Garden,” and swung hula hoops to dance music blaring inside the school’s basketball gym.
Kayla Plante, 11, left the event sold on Driftwood as her future school. She has plans to one day be a doctor.
“I just love to help people out,” Kayla explained. “I just love the feeling of making them well, making them better.”
Elementary school students don’t have to choose a career path to take advantage of the programs, as some focus on a general area of study (such as science, math and technology, or STEM) that can be applied to a variety of future occupations.
One of Broward’s most popular magnet offerings, the district’s Montessori schools, isn’t occupation-based at all. Instead, the three Montessori magnets offer an alternative, more individualized learning environment that seeks to engage students by appealing to their natural curiosities and personal interests.
But the Montessori schools also demonstrate one of the drawbacks to applying for magnet programs: Admission is no sure thing.
For the most popular programs, the number of applicants regularly exceeds the number of available seats. In such instances, students are selected through a computerized lottery process.
Last year, the district’s system-wide magnet acceptance rate was 44 percent, but that number can make getting into a magnet seem more difficult than it actually is. Only 13 magnet programs had excess applicants (and therefore a lottery) while the other 50 programs were able to accept every qualified applicant.
“You have a fairly good opportunity to be in a magnet program,” said Leona Miracola, director of Broward’s Innovative Programs department. Even students who lose out in the lottery may be able to get a spot later on in the year.
Even at high-demand magnets, families sometimes move, or students change their mind and want to go somewhere else, creating last-minute openings. For magnets that have seats available, Broward continues accepting student applications for months after the Feb. 13 deadline — that means students who don’t get into their first-choice magnet school can still likely find another similar magnet that has space available.
Between now and the February deadline, though, students can only apply to one magnet school. Miracola said this is because Broward wants to give students the best chance of getting into their top choice, as opposed to having students apply to multiple magnets at once.
Broward’s magnet schools began about 30 years ago, and like similar schools across the country, were originally used to encourage desegregation. These days, however, magnets are a key way for school districts to accommodate parents’ desire for choice without losing students to competing charter schools or private schools.
Broward has steadily expanded its magnet offerings in recent years, adding multiple STEM-focused magnets and this year opening a military academy magnet at Hollywood Hills High School. Some 40,000 or so of Broward’s roughly 227,000 students attend a magnet program.
The application requirements for magnets range from demanding to nonexistent. For elementary school students, the only requirement is to submit an application, and be located a reasonable distance from the school (so that bus transportation can be provided). As students get older, the requirements get stiffer — for example, applicants to Dillard High School’s Performing & Visual Arts magnet must “demonstrate creative talent” or show an artistic portfolio during a formal audition.
Increasingly, Broward is operating its magnet programs on a “school-wide” basis — a shift from the days when magnets were thought of as specialized academies that operated inside a larger, general education-focused school.
The goal of offering the magnet curriculum to all students within a school is to make sure that no one is shut out from its benefits. That means some students, simply because of their address, will be zoned to attend a magnet school.
For those students, admission is guaranteed, though the students are free to apply to a magnet elsewhere if they don’t like the specialized theme of their home school. Davie parent Heather Cady lives within Driftwood Middle’s attendance boundaries, and has one daughter attending there now, with another daughter likely to follow in two years.
Driftwood’s health and wellness theme, she said, is general enough that it can be a good fit for many students. For example, the school even includes basic financial skills under that category, something it refers to as “financial wellness.”
“This is a really good program,” Cady said. “It’s life.”