Miami-Dade County

For parents, finding the right magnet or charter school can be hard work

When Angel Pittman started to look into Miami-Dade magnet and charter schools for her sons, she quickly found herself frustrated.

Information on the school district’s website was limited, so she had to contact schools individually to learn about programs and application procedures. Getting the necessary information was surprisingly hard.

"I would call the schools. They wouldn’t really know exactly what the process was,” Pittman said. “What do parents want? They want to know what they have to do to get into the schools and they want to see the schools."

Now is the time to apply for charter schools in Miami-Dade, and parents need to be ready to roll up their sleeves. Getting information about the options and admission procedures can require some detective work.

The good news is there are plenty of options. The Miami-Dade school system says it has more choices for parents and kids than any other Florida school district. From elementary to high school, students can attend programs with themes like performing arts, health and medicine, engineering and robotics, computers, law-enforcement or forensic science.

Educators say matching a kid with the right program can make a huge difference to the child’s motivation and success.

"It’s important for students and parents to have a choice and to know all the various kinds of options [because] all the research has shown that when students are in a program that they are drawn to, that is of their interest, then their attendance goes up, their grades go up, and their graduation rates go up," said Robert Strickland, administrative director in Miami-Dade’s Office of School Choice and Parental Options.

On the one hand, it’s easy to register your child to your neighborhood’s assigned school. The easiest place for parents to find their boundary schools is on the school system’s website. A parent can simply enter their address, and the assigned elementary, middle and high school will pop up on an interactive map.

But if you want to send your child to a magnet or charter school, the process is more complicated.

Magnet schools

Magnets include whole schools that only offer magnet programs as well as special courses of study housed within traditional schools. Examples include MAST Academy on Virginia Key, the International Baccalaureate Programme at Coral Gables High, and Cambridge International Examinations at North Miami Educational Center.

Magnet program applications start with filling out a simple online form. A parent can apply to up to 5 programs, and the number of schools you apply to does not change a student’s chances o get into any one of them.

However, many magnet schools require extra application information such as recommendations. essays, or previous school transcripts. Some have minimum entry requirements such as attendance level, GPA, and Effort Level Scores. What one school’s magnet program asks for may differ drastically from another magnet program.

Admissions to performing arts schools such as the New World School of the Arts are based on auditions.

School officials emphasize the importance of contacting each school individually to determine the specific entrance requirements.

For some schools, parents will need to plan ahead to ensure the child meets all the prerequisites.

"You really have to start in middle school if you want then to get into [certain] high schools. If they’re not in honors [classes] , for example, they’re not going to get in," Pittman recalled. "The competition and the stress on kids in middle school to do well was something that surprised me."

Although the number and variety of programs offered can be a bit daunting, Strickland suggests using a students’ talents and interests as a starting point for figuring out what program is best suited for him or her.

Gloria Latham’s son is currently in a magnet program that focuses on graphic design at Riviera Middle School in Olympia Heights. He is interested in continuing in that course of study through a magnet program in high school. Latham has found the application process relatively simple so far.

"I think the only improvement would be having more magnet fairs so that parents can have a tour of the building as well as a better explanation of the program entails," she said. "It’s really easy to look at something on paper but it’s totally different when you see something in action."

She plans on touring a few more schools before officially submitting the application. And then, the wait begins.

"It’s nerve racking but its just part of the process," Latham said.

All completed magnet school applications that meet minimum requirements are entered into a computerized lottery system. Students of active military families as well as siblings of those already enrolled in a program get extra weight in the lottery. Parents are notified of the results by March 15. Because it is a random-selection system, students may be accepted into more than one program, in which case parents must choose by April 4.

Charter schools

Charter schools are another option for parents.

"The original intent was expanding options for parents and students and teachers even. Parents have to be very astute if you’re going to allow a charter to educate your child," said Dwight Bernard, the district’s director of charter schools. "They’re essentially turning over the education of their child from the district to another legal entity completely separate from the school board."

And it is this curricular and administrative independence from the county school system that gives charter schools much of their flexibility to offer different and experimental learning experiences for students. Charter schools in Miami-Dade include Doral Academy, Everglades Preparatory Academy High School, and Excelsior Charter High School.

Charter schools are privately operated schools that receive public money. The schools are tuition-free and all can apply regardless of where a student lives. The individual charter school governs all admissions and many accept students on a rolling basis. The application may require things like auditions, essays, and recommendations. Contacting the school directly is the best way to find out about application procedures.

Although learning about and navigating applications to the many choices can be at times confusing, more than 40 percent of students this year were enrolled in a magnet or charter program. These choices one of the things the Miami-Dade Schools are most proud of.

"The quality level has been recognized from the outside, so we don’t have to beat our own drum," Strickland said.

He reminds all parents to get applications in as soon as possible because Jan. 15is a hard deadline.