Spencer Newman, a fourth-grader at Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary, checks on the chickens housed at the campus. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)
Spencer Newman, a fourth-grader at Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary, checks on the chickens housed at the campus. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Students are wrapping up the fall semester at Wichita USD 259, but enrollment for the 2022-23 school year is already starting for the district’s 24 magnet schools.

The district’s magnet program offers schools that focus on subjects like science, leadership and performing arts, with some specializing even further into fields like aerospace engineering and health and wellness. Since seats in these schools are limited and in demand, though, parents and students need to apply and hope for a spot through the district’s lottery selection process.

The Wichita Beacon put together a guide for parents and students to navigate Wichita USD 259’s magnet school programs and application process.

What are magnet schools?

In public school systems, students are usually assigned to schools based on where they live. Schools under that system are called neighborhood schools.

Magnet schools, on the other hand, enroll students regardless of where they live in the school district. Parents apply ahead of each school year for a limited number of seats in each magnet school.

Wichita USD 259’s 24 magnet schools are further split between pure magnets and neighborhood magnets.

Pure magnets take their students from anywhere in the district. For example, Wichita Northeast, the district’s only magnet high school, functions on a pure magnet model, with three areas of focus: visual arts, law and public service, and science.

Neighborhood magnets are hybrids. Students who live nearby are admitted into the school automatically, but additional spots are given to students elsewhere in the school district who apply.

Magnet schools are further divided into areas of focus. In Wichita USD 259, those include subjects like performing arts, science, technology, engineering, math, literacy, dual language, leadership and communications. 

Instead of focusing on a specific subject, other Wichita USD 259 magnet schools set themselves apart from neighborhood schools with dress codes, approaches to classroom management and expectations for family involvement. The school district calls those schools traditional magnets.

A magnet’s specialized instruction, though, does not necessarily replace a school’s core curriculum, said Phyllis Cottner, magnet curriculum and instruction lead for the district. She used Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary as an example.

“(The students) are going to learn what’s going on in the rest of the school system,” she said. “But they’re having conversations about how to support the environment, they’re going on camping trips, or they might be working out of the school’s garden.”

Besides Wichita Northeast, other high schools in Wichita USD 259 have selective programs, like Wichita East’s International Baccalaureate program and Northwest’s Early College Academy. Any student in the district can apply for these programs, but the schools are not classified as magnet schools.

Kary Pierce, a fifth-grade teacher at Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary, leads her class in cleaning up an area that they will turn into a native tallgrass garden on the school grounds. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

Why should I consider a magnet school?

A big misconception is that magnet schools are “better” or “elite” schools compared to neighborhood schools, said Jesse Milne, science and technology specialist for Wichita USD 259’s magnet schools.

“(Magnet schools) offer a different educational opportunity and a different way to learn,” he said. “There’s some amazing things happening in our neighborhood schools as well, so it’s not so much that one is better than the other, but it’s a different lens for learning.”

Cottner said elementary magnet schools provide students with choices for their  educational experiences. But students have to be interested in the subject to learn successfully, Milne said.

“Not everyone who is 4 years old knows they’re interested in STEM or the arts,” he said. “So it’s more about exposure at the elementary level to a concept, and that’s what would be different from a neighborhood school.”

In middle and high school, students are starting to have better ideas of their occupational interests. Applying for a magnet school, then, comes down to picking programs that will best prepare them for colleges or careers they hope to pursue.

Wichita USD 259 buses students to magnet schools if they meet the district’s transportation policy, which is to bus students if they live more than 2.5 miles away from their school. Milne said Wichita USD 259 is somewhat distinctive in that regard, since other magnet programs across the country leave transportation up to parents.

Cottner said she encourages families to meet with principals and visit magnet schools they are interested in. Additionally, families can learn more about each magnet school at the district’s annual Showcase of Choices and Opportunities on Jan. 20 at Century II’s Expo Hall.

Earhart Environmental Magnet Elementary fifth graders Oliver Marlett (left) and Lily Idleman-Johnson, take a look at some native tallgrasses that they are nurturing to become a garden on the school grounds. (Fernando Salazar/The Beacon)

How do I apply to a magnet school?

Since seats are limited, admission into Wichita USD 259’s magnet schools is based on an application and lottery system.

The district’s online application opens in October. For the 2022-23 school year, these are the deadline and lottery selection dates:

  • Northeast Magnet High School: Application due Jan. 28. Lottery selection begins Feb. 4.
  • Elementary, middle magnet schools: Application due Feb. 18. Lottery selection begins March 4.

For each student, families input basic student information. They’re also asked to rank their top three choices for magnet schools, in case their most preferred school fills up. 

The district does not require testing to get into magnet schools except for students applying to Horace Mann Dual Language Magnet Elementary for grades after kindergarten. Those students are evaluated for their understanding of English and Spanish language skills.

In cases of multiple students, families may also indicate if any siblings already attend the school. Enrollment for younger siblings is not automatic, but their applications are prioritized since it’s easier on families to keep students together, Cottner said.

After the application deadline, the district runs a computerized lottery system that is mostly random but first takes into account a few priorities. The district’s first priority is keeping students on a pathway through upper level magnet schools if they’re already in an elementary magnet program.

“If you like your traditional magnet elementary and your child was very successful and you want your kid to continue that traditional pathway, then you do have a priority to attend the traditional middle school,” Cottner said.

Staff at Wichita USD 259 also receive priority for magnet school spots. Once the lottery is complete, parents are notified if their children are accepted into their first choices. If there’s room at the second or third choices, parents are asked if they accept enrollment at those schools. Otherwise, students are put on waiting lists in case spots open up at each school.

Waiting list lengths vary by school. Northeast regularly has a waiting list of about 500 students compared with a first-year class of around 240 students, while some magnet elementary schools don’t really have waiting lists, Cottner said.

For the 2021-22 school year, Wichita USD 259 placed 2,300 students in magnet schools out of 4,100 who applied. That’s similar to previous years in which demand is usually about double the supply of magnet school spots.

Even if students don’t get into a magnet school, Cottner emphasized that they will still receive a quality public school education.

“(Magnet schools) are for parents to have a choice as far as the educational experiences their students receive,” she said. “All of our schools are amazing. Our neighborhood schools are doing fantastic things. But magnet schools have the opportunity to receive instruction through whatever special theme they are emphasizing.”

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Garcia was an education reporter at The Wichita Beacon and Report for America corps member.