Admissions

Each Charleston County magnet school has a different way of filling its open seats during the school year. Some require students to transfer immediately when a spot opens up, while others require students to wait until the following year to make the transfer. The process varies depending on what school leaders have decided works best for the school community.

One of Charleston County’s highest achieving county-wide magnet schools perpetually has vacant seats while thousands of students linger on its waiting list.

School officials pledged five years ago to improve that process at Buist Academy, but little has changed. The school doesn’t purge its waiting list, which means a student who applies in kindergarten could still be on the list as an eighth-grader.

Some school board members said this week that it’s time to look at the process for handling waiting lists there and at other county-wide magnet schools. Board Chairman Chris Fraser said it’s a more complicated issue than some might think, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

“It’s obvious that there’s got to be a better, more transparent way of having waiting lists and knowing who’s on them than what’s available,” he said.

Buist Academy has 2,371 students on its K-8 waiting list; the school has 410 seats. District records show 386 of those were filled earlier this year, but Principal Sallie Ballard said the school ended the year with 398 students.

Five years ago, the school had nearly 1,900 students on its waiting list, and six eighth-grade spots had been open for at least two years.

Superintendent Nancy McGinley said county-wide magnet schools have autonomy, which means school-based leaders have the authority to decide what’s best for the schools.

She hasn’t intervened because of that, she said. Any talk of changing Buist Academy is met with considerable public outcry, she said.

The board needs to decide whether it wants to standardize what is happening, and she said doing so might not be popular in schools. It also would require extra resources for district-based workers to manage magnet schools’ admissions and waiting lists, she said.

She plans to give the board information about the way Buist Academy, Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts handle those processes, and she said she will see what kind of appetite the board has for change.

“We do have concerns that we’re not able to fill all seats in a timely manner when we’re supporting the schools at high levels,” she said. “There is a need to look at this.”

Ballard said if the school took applications annually, it would be from the same group of parents, and that didn’t seem efficient. The school accepts students from four lists, so it maintains four waiting lists — downtown residents, siblings, county residents and those who attend low-performing schools.

When a spot opens, she finds out which list the departing student came from and invites the next student on the waiting list to apply. Parents have 10 days to respond to a written letter, then the school moves on to the next name, she said.

“It works out,” she said.It’s often difficult to fill vacancies because most openings are in seventh and eighth grades, and by then students don’t want to leave their friends, Ballard said.

It also has been more challenging to fill seats since the school moved into a temporary site in Mount Pleasant, but she expected that to change when the school returned downtown.

At Academic Magnet High, the school asks interested students to reapply each year, and it ranks the top 35 or so on a waiting list. Spots in upper grades typically are filled at the beginning of the school year because the school’s classes last all year rather than a semester, which is different from most other high schools, said school Principal Judith Peterson.

The school started the year with 627 students and finished with 623.

School Board Policy Committee Chairwoman Elizabeth Moffly said she would like more consistency across magnet schools’ admissions procedures rather than each doing so in a different way. Moffly said that can be addressed in policy.

Cindy Bohn Coats said the board needs to ensure that schools’ processes are fair. The board doesn’t need to decide how to manage waiting lists, but there is a lack of understanding on what happens with those, she said.

“I don’t know that there’s a better way. I just know we need to discuss it,” she said.

Reach Diette Courrégé at @Diette on Twitter or 937-5546.