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If you’re a parent who keeps up with school rankings, then you’ve most likely seen the most recent US News & World Report list of New Jersey’s best high schools. This year, the top eight are what we in the Garden State call “magnet schools,” or selective-admissions academies run by county vocational-technical districts (several large school districts like Elizabeth, Jersey City and Newark have their own magnets, too).
The best of the best, according to US News, are High Technology High School (Lincroft), Bergen County Academies (Hackensack), Bergen County Technical High School (Teterboro) and Biotechnology High School (Freehold). Union County’s Magnet High School and Academy for Information Technology, both in Scotch Plains, also made the top ten. The Star-Ledger has its own ratings, too, and the top 10 are all magnet schools run by either counties or districts. Eight of Niche’s list of top New Jersey high schools are magnets. The top ten high schools in NJ, according to SchoolDigger’s 2017 ratings, are—you guessed it—all magnet schools.
What’s so special about magnets? Who pays for them? And, most importantly, how do you get your kid in? Let’s start with the basics.
Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has a vocational-technical school district, some of which run magnet schools. Vo-techs traditionally offer training in trades (car mechanics, landscaping, food services, cosmetology, etc.), but in the late 1990s, some local officials saw the opportunity to create academically-rigorous high schools. The resulting county-wide magnet schools are funded through the vo-tech model, which means money comes through a combination of county taxes, state and federal aid and tuition payments from students’ assigned school districts.
If you live in Passaic County, Passaic County Technical Institute is a fine option for those in or near Paterson, but it won’t blow you away with its traditional votech offerings. Essex, Warren, Sussex and Cumberland Counties have no magnet schools. But if you live in Bergen, Monmouth, Union, Morris, Hudson, Ocean or Mercer, your child may have access to a cornucopia of academic riches—with adequate preparation and a little research.
Say you live in Hackensack and your child just entered seventh grade. Right in town is Bergen County Academies (BCA), the second-best magnet in the state according to US News & World Report. How does this alternative high school fare when it comes to test scores and academic offerings? Well, for starters, according to the most recent Department of Education data, the average SAT scores are 722 in reading and 748 in math. Every single student takes at least one Advanced Placement (AP) course among the 20 offered. Every single graduate enrolls in a four-year college.
Sure, you know it’s a long shot, but you’re still determined to do whatever you can to find your child a spot. The process for admission starts in eighth grade because magnets don’t “backfill” or enroll older students if spaces open up. So, what should your child do? The same thing you do to get to Carnegie Hall: practice, practice, practice.
PREPARING FOR ADMISSION
Specifically, practice for the admissions test because out of 3,000 hopefuls, only nine percent (270 students) are admitted to BCA each year. Luckily, there are resources galore. For example, you can buy The Get Ready Guide for the Bergen Academies Admissions Test, now in its third edition and updated for the new essay section. Your child can take sample math tests or enroll in review courses. The admissions process also requires essays, interviews, teacher recommendations and seventh and eighth grade report cards.
At Monmouth County’s best magnet, High Technology High School (average SAT scores: 739 in reading, 761 in math; 100 percent participation in AP courses; 100 percent enrollment in four-year colleges), prospective students earn points through a rubric that includes their final seventh grade GPA and the first semester of eighth grade with heavier emphasis placed on math and language arts admissions tests. Unlike BCA, High Tech High’s website instructs that “there’s no way and no need to prepare for the exams.”
Still want to prep? Your best bet is to ask parents of current students for advice because admissions policies differ from county to county. You’ll find that most top magnets have similar requirements: high grades, stellar test scores and good recommendations. But there’s no escaping the fact that these crown jewels of NJ’s traditional public school system “cream off” top students, an accusation often aimed towards public charter schools. Yet, few lob this bomb towards magnets. They’re school choice Teflon.
In the best of all possible worlds, these schools’ enrollments would mirror county demographics. But they don’t always. Let’s go back to Hackensack, the home of both the district high school and BCA. At Hackensack High School, 52 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 13 percent are eligible for special education services and 8 percent are English language learners. Seventy-six percent of students are Black or Hispanic.
At BCA, 5 percent of students are economically disadvantaged, 1 percent is eligible for special education services and none are English language learners. Twelve percent of students are Black or Hispanic; 88 percent are Asian or white.
So, this isn’t the best of all possible worlds. This is New Jersey, where our public school system, like many across the nation, is beset by wildly disparate quality often tied to zip code. But magnets offer a tantalizing opportunity to rectify this inequity. What if they followed the new trend in charter schools (another form of public school choice) and mirrored the demographics of their catchment areas? What if magnet schools aspired not only to academic excellence, but also to diversity? Now that’s worth a gold star on anyone’s top 10 list.
Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for a range of publications. A mother of four, she served on the Lawrence Township Board of Education for 12 years, nine as president. The views expressed here are her own.