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Some CMS magnets are more magnetic than others

Rea Farms STEAM Academy opened more magnet seats for 2024-25 but still has a waiting list.
CMS Facebook page
Rea Farms STEAM Academy opened more magnet seats for 2024-25 but still has a waiting list.

This article originally appeared in WFAE reporter Ann Doss Helms' weekly education newsletter. To get the latest school news in your inbox first, sign up for our email newsletters here.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools has posted the results of its 2024 magnet lottery. The good news for families is it’s not too late to get into a magnet program: 56 schools still have space and are open to transfers.

The bad news? The formula for attractive magnets remains elusive, at a time when CMS faces increased competition for students. The difference between long waiting lists and perilously low participation lies in a mix of program, location and reputation.

Consider some of the contradictions:

  • Rea Farms STEAM Academy, a K-8 school in south Charlotte, has waiting lists at every grade level, including 95 children waiting for the 90 kindergarten spots that were filled. And this comes as the K-5 neighborhood students are being reassigned to open more magnet seats. But other STEM/STEAM programs, such as those at Bruns Avenue, Oakhurst and Governor’s Village, remain far from filled. In fact, Bruns got no kindergarten applicants for the coming year. (STEM is science, technology, engineering and math, while STEAM has arts added to the mix.)
  • The new Ballantyne Ridge High, opening in August, filled its 100 International Baccalaureate magnet seats and has 53 on the waiting list. In general, high school IB programs draw strong participation, though West Charlotte, North Meck and East Meck still have space.
  • There’s wider variation among IB programs for lower grades. Piedmont IB, a full magnet in uptown Charlotte, is one of the most popular magnets, with 350 sixth-graders seated and almost 150 waiting. But many elementary and middle school IB programs have space to spare,  especially if they’re housed in high-poverty schools. Ranson Middle School’s IB program, for instance, has a total of 34 students signed up for 2024-25.
  • As usual, Montessori magnets like Park Road, Chantilly and Highland Mill remain in high demand. The long waiting lists may ease in 2025, when several Montessori programs are slated to move into larger renovated buildings. Meanwhile, the district’s arts magnets are also in line for renovations that will create more seats, but they’re not filling the space they have now.
  • UNC Charlotte has two on-campus early-college magnets that offer a chance to prepare for careers. The one for engineers has a hefty waiting list, but the one for teachers is small and declining.
  • The early college magnet at Central Piedmont Community College’s uptown campus, which opened slightly below capacity this year, has 100 freshmen signed up for August with another 99 on the waiting list. But the middle college high schools at other Central Piedmont campuses, which serve grades 11-13 (that’s an extra year of tuition-free credit), are not filling. The Harper campus, for instance, has only 25 11th-graders and the Merancas campus has 33.

The challenges of locating magnets

The CMS magnet program started as a tool for court-ordered racial desegregation. Now it’s viewed as a way to offer all students access to specialized programs. But deciding what to put where has proven challenging.

For instance, a few years ago CMS decided to spread out its world language magnets. The reasoning seemed sound: These programs offer valuable chances to become proficient in at least one additional language, and until recently families in northern Mecklenburg County had little access. But now the language magnets have space to spare. North Mecklenburg High, for instance, has eight students signed up for German immersion, 11 for Japanese, 14 for Chinese and 16 for French. The district acknowledges it’s tough to find teachers fluent in all the languages being offered.

The district sometimes locates magnet programs in neighborhood schools that need an infusion of students, more socioeconomic diversity and/or an academic boost. But magnets housed in high-poverty schools are often the hardest to fill. Shamrock Gardens Elementary has built a talent development magnet that has a waiting list, but it’s the exception (and required extensive support from neighborhood families to thrive).

In August CMS plans to launch three new magnet programs at Garinger High, an effort that drew cheers from east Charlotte advocates. But so far the school has one student signed up for exercise science, four for the Cambridge International program and 11 for Spanish immersion. The Cambridge program has been popular as an option in several neighborhood schools, but this year’s attempt to turn it into a magnet at Garinger and Eastway Middle School (nine students total) doesn’t seem to have sparked much interest.

And then there’s Waddell High, a southwest Charlotte building that CMS has struggled to find the best use for. Last year CMS tried to start an aviation magnet there but pulled the plug because of low enrollment. The full-size high school building currently houses only a small program for teens who are learning to speak English and the CMS virtual academy. There was talk of trying again to launch aviation this year, but that didn’t happen. So the school will be mostly empty again in 2024-25.

Why the magnet lottery matters
Morning Edition host Marshall Terry talks to WFAE education reporter Ann Doss Helms about why magnet results matter to families and taxpayers.
The 2023 Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools bond package includes renovations that set the stage for changes in the districts arts magnet program.

Waiting for a comprehensive review

CMS has been talking for almost three years about launching a comprehensive review of student assignments that would include evaluating all magnet programs. Board Chair Stephanie Sneed says Superintendent Crystal Hill and her staff are working with a consultant to craft an analysis that will be presented in May or June.

“They’ll be looking at things like what are the current programs that we’re having now, the utilization of those programs, the demographic (and) who’s participating in those programs,” she said. “It should be a comprehensive analysis of all the programs that we have and any that we possibly want to implement in the future.”

School board members and top staff started talking about an in-depth update on student assignments in 2021. But most of those people are gone now, swept out in the recent leadership churn. Last April the board took the matter up again, but it was still wrapping up the superintendent search that led to Hill’s hiring. Sneed says Hill and the board want to finish work on the next five-year strategic plan before diving into magnets, boundaries and other topics that tend to demand a lot of energy.

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Ann Doss Helms has covered education in the Charlotte area for over 20 years, first at The Charlotte Observer and then at WFAE. Reach her at ahelms@wfae.org or 704-926-3859.