Another big decision: Magnet school or zoned school?

May 22, 2011 

A couple of years ago, one of my sons got a letter from an institution of learning congratulating him on his academic and extracurricular achievements and inviting him to submit an application along with his transcript.

My son was 9 years old.

He was attending a public elementary school a couple of blocks from our house, and the letter was from another elementary school across town.

Welcome to public education in Columbus, where life is not as simple as finding out which school your kids are zoned for.

Yes, Columbus does have school zones. But it also has magnet schools.

If you’re moving to Columbus and you have children in elementary school, you’ll probably hear about Britt David Elementary, one of the top schools in the state. But don’t automatically shop for houses in surrounding neighborhoods, because there’s no zone for Britt David. It’s a total magnet school, which means students attend from all over town, and must take a test -- and maybe even spend time on a waiting list -- before they’re invited to enroll.

If you have high school students, you’ll probably hear about award-winning Columbus High School. But don’t automatically shop for houses in surrounding neighborhoods, because it’s a total magnet school, too, and all prospective students must pass an entrance test.

Here’s a word of advice: Take anything another parent tells you about magnet programs with a grain of salt. A parent whose child didn’t get into a magnet school may tell you the system is political or unfair or flawed. A parent whose child did get into a magnet program may tell you the system is unbelievably competitive -- because, of course, their child is unbelievably smart.

Talk to other parents, sure, but most importantly call the school that you’d like to attend and ask the counselor or magnet director for the requirements to attend. They’ll likely be friendly and helpful -- after all, they want to attract good students.

Last year, my daughter was in eighth grade and signed up for the third Columbus High entrance exam because she had school activities that conflicted with the first two tests. A co-worker whose daughter had taken the first test and had already been admitted told me that my daughter might not get into Columbus High because she didn’t take one of the early tests.

My wife and I were worried, even though our daughter is a solid student. But then we called Columbus High and talked to a counselor who told us that even though some students who’d taken the early tests had been admitted, there was still room left.

And that was true. But while she was waiting to hear from Columbus High, she applied to the outstanding International Baccalaureate program at Hardaway High School. And if anybody asked where she was going to high school, she told them the Video Game Design Magnet at Spencer High School.

As for our son the elementary prodigy, we decided to keep him and our other two sons at Blanchard Elementary, the school that’s a short walk from our house. We know the teachers, we like the principal, and my wife works as a substitute teacher there so she knows what our kids are learning and how to help them.

Sure, Britt David is a great school, and so are other area magnet schools, but the school you’re zoned for may turn out to be a better fit.

Bottom line, don’t let other parents freak you out. Decide which school is best for your child -- not which one your neighbor says is the best -- and then call the school and ask lots of questions.

Follow the application procedures they give you, meet the deadlines, and do the same thing for your second and third choices.

And if you’re zoned for a school on the state’s Needs Improvement list, you can file paperwork for your child to attend a passing school in another part of town.

Or if you’re buying a house in a school zone you like, then you can sit back and relax.

Hang in there, and you and your child will make the grade.

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