It’s not too late to apply for popular school ‘choice’ programs

Students in a magnet program at Hialeah Gardens High School work with University of Miami students and faculty to tackle issues such as housing needs and climate change in the neighborhood around the school.
Students in a magnet program at Hialeah Gardens High School work with University of Miami students and faculty to tackle issues such as housing needs and climate change in the neighborhood around the school.

Parents still have almost two weeks to enroll their children in magnet and choice programs in the Miami-Dade public school system, part of a new continuous enrollment policy that gives students access to the district’s popular thematic programs up until the first day of school.

In previous years, students were only able to apply for magnet and choice programs in October for the following school year. Now the district has a website to help families find out which programs still have space available. Users can search by grade level or magnet theme, perusing a variety of offerings ranging from forensic science and conservation biology to international finance and robotics.

“It’s a great tool for parents who want to know: ‘I just moved into our community. What are the magnet programs that are still available for my child?’ ” said Lubby Navarro, the School Board member who proposed the continuous enrollment policy last year. “It really created transparency in our public school system for parents who want to know immediately [which programs have open seats] and it actually increased the number of students applying,” she said.

Miami-Dade has continued to expand choice programs in both an effort to motivate and engage students and in response to increasing competition from charter schools.

At a School Board meeting on Aug. 3, district administrators unveiled 59 new magnet and choice programs that are either in the development stages or will be available to students for the first time this school year. They include a sports management program at Miami Norland Senior High School with financial support from the Miami Dolphins, app development programs in the works at Miami Southridge and Southwest Miami senior high schools, and legal studies programs at Myrtle Grove and Linda Lentin K-8 centers, along with eight new music programs at schools across the county.

In total, the district now offers more than 500 choice programs; in 2007 it had fewer than 300. Some of the choice programs are housed in magnet schools, which are open to students from across the county who meet application requirements. Others, known as non-magnet choice programs, are offered within neighborhood public schools.

“We believe students in choice programs perform better,” said Sylvia Diaz, an assistant superintendent overseeing school choice. “Kids who are picking their options are involved in programs that really appeal to them and that motivate them.”

Diaz said some of the new programs originated within local schools with strengths in particular areas, like science or visual arts, while others were proposed at the district level.

“With all the different competition with charter schools and the changing educational landscape, what’s happening is that schools themselves are looking at ways to market the work that they’re doing by creating thematic programs in schools,” Diaz said.

The district is also working to create a more equitable distribution of choice programs in Miami-Dade, Diaz said. In the past, critics have complained that access to choice programs varies within the district.

“We’re looking to have different types of programs available across the county so that kids are not having to travel all the way from Homestead to Aventura to get to a particular program,” Diaz said.

Choice programs are becoming increasingly popular in Miami-Dade. Some 60 percent of Miami-Dade public school students — around 215,000 students — enrolled in some form of choice program, including charter schools, in 2016, compared to 41 percent in 2011.

Parents who would still like to enroll their children in magnet and choice programs for the 2016-2017 school year should use the new website to identify programs of interest and then contact schools directly to confirm availability, Diaz said.

The regular application process for magnet programs for the 2017-2018 school year will open in October.

Navarro, the School Board member, said the new continuous enrollment policy is important in Miami-Dade because of the large number of students moving into the district throughout the school year, often from other countries, after the registration deadline for magnet and choice programs has passed.

“Now those families don’t have to wait,” Navarro said. “The faster they get into these programs, the sooner it sparks interest,” she said.