Education-obsessed parents of New Jersey public school students snap to attention when high school rankings appear in national and state publications. We all want our children have a superlative academic experience, and sometimes we’re unsure of the quality or opportunities available in our local districts. So when we see magnet after magnet school topping the “best schools” list, it’s natural to wonder, could my child go there?

The answer is: maybe. In NJ, magnet schools are really “gifted and talented” schools with strict residency requirements—you have to live in the county where they’re located, and admissions criteria are rigorous.

Interestingly, the NJ Department of Education claims that “New Jersey does not have statewide specialized magnet schools in the arts, science or technology.” In reality, we do—but they’re not run by the state, they’re run by the county.

What is A Magnet School?

Each of New Jersey’s 21 counties has a vocational-technical school district, which is the group that oversees its county magnet schools. Some vo-tech districts are limited to what you traditionally think of when you think “vo-tech”: car mechanics, landscaping, food services and cosmetology. In the late 1990s, however, local officials saw the opportunity to merge those programs with some of our most academically rigorous high schools. The resulting magnet schools are funded through a vo-tech model, which means the money comes through a combination of county taxes, state and federal aid and tuition payments from students’ local school districts.

So let’s look at a recent best high school list. Here are U.S. News and World Report’s rankings of all public NJ high schools, which were chosen using an algorithm that includes state standardized assessments, SAT and ACT scores, Advanced Placement results and college enrollment upon graduation.

1. Biotechnology High School (Monmouth County)

2. High Technology High School (Monmouth County)

3. Bergen County Technical High School (Bergen County)

4. Dr. Ronald McNair High School (Hudson County)

5. Bergen Academies (Bergen County)

6. Academy of Allied Health and Science (Monmouth County)

7. Princeton High School (Mercer County)

8. North Star Academy Charter School Newark (Essex County)

9.Middlesex County Academy for Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering Technologies (Middlesex County)

10. Elizabeth High School (Union County)

Here’s how the list breaks down: Princeton High School (#7) is a traditional public high school, albeit it one in a particularly high-achieving municipality. North Star Academy (#8) is a public charter school in Newark that’s part of the widely-respected Uncommon Schools charter network, and is only open to Newark students. The other eight are all county magnet schools, although Elizabeth High School (#10) and McNair (#4) are restricted to students who live in Elizabeth and Jersey City, respectively. 

How to Get in

The number one requirement for attending a given magnet school?  You have to live in the county where it’s located. Since not all counties in NJ have stellar magnet schools, you’re out of luck if there isn’t a good one near you. And if there’s a great option in your area, expect the competition to be fierce and the caliber of students to be exclusive. In Bergen, Morris and Monmouth counties, magnet schools usually allot towns a specific number of spots based on the student population. Accordingly admissions criteria can be daunting. For example, applicants to Biotechnology High School, the top-rated high school in the state run by Monmouth County Vocational School District, are evaluated based on scores from admissions exams,  one-on-one interviews and GPAs.  After that, “the most qualified student from each sending school district will be admitted and all others will be placed into a general pool,” the school’s admissions guidelines say. Once they’re accepted into the general pool, it becomes a waiting game. “Students are then admitted from the general pool based on their grades in seventh and eighth grade as well as the admissions exam, until all available seats are filled.”

If you live in one of Bergen County’s 70 school districts, your child can apply to Bergen Academies, which has campuses in Teterboro and Hackensack. Admissions criteria include top-notch transcripts, high standardized test scores, entrance exams and interviews—with acceptance rates hovering around 15 percent. The application process is so competitive, you can even buy a book called Get Ready for the Bergen Academies Admissions Test.

Why is demand for these schools so high? For one, they’re free. Or, at least, supported by public taxes, not private school tuition payments.  They also frequently offer opportunities you can’t find at your neighborhood high school. High Technology High School in Monmouth County, for instance, has a “Computer-Aided Design Laboratory” for budding engineers. Bergen Academies has a “Nano-Structural Imaging Lab,” outfitted with all kinds of high-tech microscopes. 

Magnet schools are bound by fewer mandates than traditional public high schools, too. Superintendents aren’t subject to NJ’s legislated superintendent salary cap, so magnets can pay more for educational leadership. The superintendent of Bergen Academies, for instance, makes $238,772 plus benefits, well above the state salary cap of $175,000. Costs per pupil are higher because county pockets are deeper. The per-student cost at Bergen Academies for the 2015-2016 school year is $28,099, for example.  By comparison, the cost per student at Hackensack High School, the public school in the city where Bergen Academies is located, is $16,432.

Interestingly, magnets draw little of the political vitriol often directed at other public school options like charter schools, After all, the angry objections to independent charters—that they “cream off” high-performing children from traditional schools and burden local districts with tuition and transportation costs—could be made about magnets, too. But they’re not. In New Jersey, magnets are school-choice Teflon. 

So if you live in the right county and your child makes the grade, you, too, can send your kid to one of the most stellar schools in the state, and know that your family is part of a very exclusive club. 

Laura Waters is a NJ school board member and author of the blog NJ Left Behind. The views expressed here are her own.

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