Durham’s education lottery: your chance to win a “good” school

No, I’m not talking about the “education” lottery run by the State; this is a far stranger animal: the DPS Magnet School lottery.

Before I talk about the lottery itself, a bit of background is in order.

As you may know, Durham has historically been… lacking…  in the whole “education” game. It’s not much of a secret that parents and would-be parents often land in Chapel Hill or Cary due to their superior schools, which post consistently better scores on end-of-grade testing.

Durham’s “neighborhood schools” (code for “the school you go to by default based on where you live”) really have been underperforming for decades. There are perfectly good reasons for this; specifically, Durham is a more diverse area than the more solidly middle class Chapel Hill and Cary. Durham has large populations of economically disadvantaged and non-native English speakers, so it’s no surprise that the overall statistics reflect more on the challenges of the student bodies rather than any inherent defect in the system itself.

In short: Durham’s public schools are bad because more of the students are starting from bad positions. If you examine the data (specifically with an eye for economic-ish factors) when looking at e.g. Great Schools dot org you can observe a pretty consistent pattern: the kids who aren’t on free / reduced lunch and aren’t English as a second language fare almost as well as their suburban neighbors. Still, the poorly performing schools do fare somewhat worse even for economically advantaged students, and (probably more troublingly) tend to have more violence and criminal activity surrounding them.

A large part of this is the legacy of Durham’s “white flight,” when affluent people (and their tax moneys) moved to the suburbs and abandoned the inner city schools. In response to the problem, the county and city school systems merged back in the ’90s, aiming for (in part / theoretically) a more even distribution of funds from suburban taxpayers to the failing inner city schools.

The magnet system was one of the early initiatives of the newly combined school system; probably its most visible success story is the Durham School of the Arts, which was founded (along with eight other magnets) in 1996 [Source: “Durham County: A History of Durham County, NC by Jean Bradley Anderson, pp 415].

Now I wasn’t there, so I don’t know how they were originally pitched, but from what I can tell the basic notion behind magnet schools was:

  • Take a failing inner city “neighborhood school” with no clear path to success, and shut it down.
  • Change the districting of the surrounding area, so you send those kids to other, less bad schools, freeing up the failing school to be repurposed.
  • Re-open the failing school with a “theme,” then allow students from all over the school system come there to receive a more specialized education there, and by so doing increase diversity.

By killing the failing schools and sending the students to “less bad” schools, you (hopefully) give them a better education. At the same time, the new magnet schools attract students from all over, which should make them more diverse than the (often very segregated) schools they replace. Furthermore, the neighborhood schools should “lose” students who opt for the magnet school, thus offsetting the addition of newly zoned students and hopefully limiting overcrowding.

Win win. Right?

Well… maybe.

There’s a weird thing that has happened with the DPS magnet schools: they’ve become some of the better performing schools in the district. So now, if you’re zoned for a poorly performing “neighborhood school,” magnet schools represent not just targeted programs that appeal to your child’s specific interests, but instead they’re your best chance to get into a better performing, safer school even if you live in a crappy area.

Here’s the trick to all of this: DPS magnet schools can only be entered if a parent makes a specific effort to get his or her kid into the magnet school. There are two basic ways to get into a magnet, both of which require that an online application to be filled out:

  • If you live in the “walk zone” (a .5 mile radius around a magnet school) you can get in due to proximity. Not all magnets allow this (e.g. DSA does not) but most do.
  • You enter… the lottery.

Your chances of winning the lottery vary, depending on which school you’re trying to enter, how much competition there is, and… other things. There is a byzantine set of rules which governs your odds, and what happens to you once you’re in. I don’t even really understand how all this works, and I’m having trouble finding out, but I’ll try to break down the factors here:

  • Once a student “wins” the lottery, they can stay in a magnet school until they outgrow it or leave (and few people decide to leave). This means your chances of winning are higher if you’re trying to get in at grade “breaks” (especially at K or Pre-K levels)
  • Oh, there’s an exception to that; if you got into a magnet due to a “walk zone,” and subsequently move out of the walk zone, you’re gonna have to win the lottery to stay.
  • In addition to the magic automatic “walk zone” of .5 miles, there’s also a “priority zone” for some schools which, while not automatic, will increase your odds of winning the lottery based on your current school and/or residence location.
  • In many cases, once you’re in at one magnet, you also have a preferential path to the next magnet up of the same type; so e.g. you have better odds if you try to go from a Montessori elementary school to a Montessori middle school.
  • If you want, you can apply for “sibling priority” which increases your odds of getting a sibling into a magnet school when a sibling is already in that magnet school.
  • If you work for a DPS magnet school, congratulations! You can take your kid with you.

Oh, and best of all? There are magnet preschools. If you win one of those, you get free pre-K education as well.

I don’t have hard numbers, but I’ve heard that your chance of getting in at an entry point is about 10-20%. Getting into a non-transitional grade is less common.

So in a very literal sense, Durham has an education lottery, in which the prize is a superior education, even including free child care for your kid who is too young for regular school (which, I know from experience, is worth nearly 5 figures).

Why do I bring this up now? Oh, just because the magnet deadline for the 2014-2015 school year is like… tomorrow. So if, you know, you’re hoping to win the lottery, you should probably get on that.

5 thoughts on “Durham’s education lottery: your chance to win a “good” school”

  1. Another mysterious thing is the ‘0.5 mile radio us of the ‘walk zone’… There looks to be some very interesting gerrymandering on some of these zones… If you can find the maps….

  2. There is a spreadsheet that a docent gave me on a tour in 2013 that was extremely useful in determining the likelihood of my child getting into the various magnets based on our not being in any priority position (having siblings, walk zone, etc). I cannot find that document anywhere on their website but it is EXACTLY the kind of info an informed parent needs before applying for the lotteries b/c if, for example, your 1st choice is a school which fills 98% of its spots through the priority categories (like Watts or Morehead Montessoris), you are wasting your time by applying there when you are not in one of those categories. Try to find this document with 2014 info; it would be VERY valuable to parents applying for the 2015 lottery.

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