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Drawing a crowd

Wake County’s magnet schools offer rich learning experiences

by Danielle Jackson



When Tony Marshall relocated his family from the Washington, D.C., area, he put his sons in what he thought was one of the county’s best schools. But soon after, he was disappointed in their quality of learning and began the search for a new opportunity. What he found changed his sons’ lives forever.


“I met a counselor at Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School who said that I needed to bring my sons there,” says Marshall, who’s president and CEO of Innovative Systems Group in Raleigh.


“I wasn’t convinced that they were getting a good education where they were, so we went for a visit,” he adds. “Class wasn’t even in, and there were 200 students there, all voluntarily. They were engaged in their learning.”


Marshall’s not alone. Many parents throughout Wake County tout the benefits of a magnet school education.


“Magnet schools positively impact students by providing enhancements to the North Carolina Standard Course of Study that might meet what parents see to be the strengths of their child,” says David Ansbacher, Ed.D., senior director for magnet programs.


“Through magnet programs, the school system is able to offer choices to parents, and the possibility of choice keeps families in public schools that meet their needs,” he adds. “Also, because magnets keep schools full, the community benefits by making efficient use of all buildings and school facilities.”


What makes a magnet?

Magnet schools — initially created as a result of desegregation initiatives — were introduced in 1982 as a way to avoid underenrollment at certain schools and to offer a solid population balance. Today, there are 33 schools educating more than 10,000 students.


Because magnet schools are part of the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), families attend at no cost. The theme for each school is rooted in the N.C. Standard Course of Study, but it’s the delivery of the curriculum that makes them stand apart from traditional public schools. At magnet schools, this occurs either through the instructional model and delivery of a particular program such as Montessori, or through specific course offerings.


For example, students in the Museums Program — offered at Brooks Elementary and Moore Square Middle School — not only are exposed to the area’s museums and cultural offerings, but they also get opportunities to go behind the scenes, meet with docents, and create their own exhibit.


There are three main pathways families can choose from: International Baccalaureate, which includes creative arts and the Center for Spanish Language; the GT/IB Center for Humanities, Sciences & the Arts, which includes Gifted & Talented and International Studies programs; and the Center for Leadership & Technology, which includes Montessori, Museum and Engineering programs, among others. There’s also an Early College program for rising ninth graders.


Why choose a magnet?

Many parents believe in certain magnet programs’ more individualized styles of learning, while others say it’s experiences outside the classroom that offer the most benefit. But all agree on one thing: Students are engaged.


“Some schools have the ability to engage kids, and that’s what Southeast Raleigh Magnet High School has the ability to do,” Marshall says of his sons’ education.


“Education is truly taking place there,” he adds. “They take you as you are, they don’t care where you came from and they’ll get you where you need to be.”


Elizabeth Clark chose A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School in Raleigh for her son to help tailor his education to his personality and learning style.


“We were impressed with the variety of magnets available, but even more than that we remain impressed by each magnet’s commitment to its unique programs,” she says.


A.B. Combs uses the Covey habits established by Dr. Stephen R. Covey’s “The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.”


“We even use the Covey habits at home in all kinds of situations with our children,” Clark says. “Whether it’s commending them for being proactive or asking them to focus on putting things first, the leadership program at Combs has given us some wonderful parenting tools.”


It’s all about location

Magnet schools’ target market includes high-growth areas near schools that already might be overpopulated. Transportation is offered for most students in some capacity, and the schools insist on being as socially connected as possible to help parents and their kids adjust to a different setting that might not be so close to home.


This distance does offer a clear advantage, Ansbacher notes.


“Because magnets draw from many different parts of the county, these kids get to know other kids who come from different backgrounds and locations,” he says.


“This way, they have friends with whom they share neighborhood interests and those with whom they share academic interests.” 


Danielle Jackson is editor of Wake Living, Fifteen501 and Triad Living magazines.



How to apply

There are no special performance standards or test scores required for admission into a magnet program. Any student enrolled or pre-registered in the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) is eligible for admission.


Students can submit applications online or via regular mail during the acceptance period, which runs from Feb. 14-28, 2011. For more information, call (919) 501-7900 or visit