From a parent’s perspective, the HISD magnet application process can be quite daunting, and even a little scary. However you can navigate the process with ease if you know what to expect.
In this section, we provide guidance on every aspect of the magnet and Vanguard magnet application process.
IT’S A LOTTERY
There’s one key difference between private school admissions and magnet admissions: while the former is typically merit-based, magnet admissions are based on a lottery system. Generally speaking, every qualified applicant has an equal chance of admission. (This system is explained in greater detail below.)
This means that, regardless of how many programs you apply to, there is a chance that your child won’t be accepted to any of them. This is no reflection on your child; it’s just how the system works.
In order to maximize your chances of admission, it’s best to
- apply to as many schools as possible and
- apply to less-selective and less-coveted schools in addition to your top choices.
Don’t get your heart set on one school; you’ll only set yourself up for disappointment. Some of Houston’s best elementary schools accept fewer than 5% of magnet applicants. It’s important to be realistic. Absolutely apply to the very best schools, but also include a few safety schools which still seem like good choices for your child. When choosing safety schools, consider yield as well as acceptance rate – the lower the yield, the greater the chance a waitlisted student will eventually be offered a spot.
Of course, if magnet schools are only one of the options you’re considering, you don’t necessarily have to put effort into maximizing the odds of acceptance. If you’d be content with your zoned neighborhood school (you can find yours here), or if you’re looking at private schools as well, it’s perfectly alright to apply only to the one or two magnet schools where you feel your child would excel. Just bear in mind that admission is far from guaranteed, and make sure you’ve picked a good backup school.
With all of that being said, however, the most important thing to bear in mind is that you don’t need to stress about this. There is absolutely nothing you can do to increase your child’s odds of admission to a specific school, so there’s no point in worrying about it. And remember, Houston has an abundance of good schools – even if your child isn’t admitted to the magnet school of your choice, there’s no shortage of great alternatives.
CHOOSING YOUR SCHOOL(S)
We recommend that you begin looking at possible schools approximately a year before your child would enroll – August 2019 for a 2020 enrollment, for example. This year in advance will give you and your children plenty of time to consider the options before the application period opens at the end of September.
While considering prospective schools, we encourage you to check out our profiles of HISD’s top magnet schools as well as our analysis of the top HISD magnet programs for 2019.
HISD provides several resources to help parents choose the best schools for their children. On School Choice Thursdays (or Magnet Thursdays), which are held throughout October, November, and early December, all Magnet Campuses offer tours to interested parents, with both morning and afternoon tours available. During the same time frame, parents can also attend HISD-hosted Magnet Open Houses on select Saturdays. Scheduling and location information for these events is typically made available on the HISD site and in local news media close to the time of.
HISD allows parents to apply to up to 5 magnet schools per student. To maximize the odds of admission, it’s a good idea to select 2-3 top-tier selective schools, such as those profiled by the Houston School Survey, and use the remaining application slots for mid-range and safety schools.
It is important to note that as of the 2018 application cycle (for the 2019-2020 school year), order matters. You will be asked to rank your choices from one to five. If your child is admitted to a given school, their applications for schools which you ranked lower will be automatically withdrawn. This means you must take care to rank top-tier choices first, followed by mid-range and safety schools. Within each of these three clusters, we recommend ranking schools according to how well the program matches your child’s needs, rather than by probability of admission.
When selecting your top-choice schools, there are several considerations to bear in mind. The foremost, of course, is whether your child will thrive in a particular program. A student who is self-motivated and creative may do very well in a Montessori program, for example, and students with specialized interests may be well-served by magnet programs that target specific subject areas like STEM, world languages, and the fine arts. Other factors to take into account include location, budget, single-sex vs. coeducational classroom settings, and the availability of advanced curricula such as IB and AP (all of which are discussed in our page on choosing a new school).
As you are choosing your schools, you will see one term come up again and again – Vanguard. This title denotes HISD’s programs for Gifted and Talented (G/T) students. Many of HISD’s best schools are dedicated Vanguard magnets*, meaning that students must be certified by HISD as G/T before they can enroll. As detailed under “Determination of Qualification” below, Vanguard applications require extra materials and testing to identify a student as G/T. Unless your child is already registered as G/T with HISD, we recommend that you select more non-Vanguard than Vanguard schools as top choices. After all, as HISD points out on their website, “If you apply to 5 Vanguard programs, and your student is not ultimately identified as Gifted and Talented, your student will not be considered for any of the Vanguard programs chosen.”
*It is important to note that dedicated Vanguard magnets are different from Gifted and Talented Neighborhood schools. Most HISD magnet schools have G/T Neighborhood programs to serve the needs of G/T students, but G/T certification is a condition of enrollment only at dedicated Vanguard magnets. If you are interested in the G/T Neighborhood option for your child, or if you want to know more about the difference between dedicated Vanguard magnets and G/T Neighborhood schools, click here.
WHEN TO APPLY
The magnet school application process has been broken up into three phases since the 2018 application cycle:
- Phase 1 begins in late September and ends in early December. HISD residents (or the children of active HISD employees who live outside the HISD boundaries) who apply at any time during the Phase 1 window have an equal chance in the admissions lottery for each school, with the exception of those who have siblings who are already enrolled in a given program (see “The Admissions Lottery” below). All students who meet the qualifications for a given program will be entered into the lottery if there are more applicants than available seats.
- Phase 2 begins immediately after Phase 1 in December and lasts until the end of May. Phase 2 is essentially the phase for latecomers. Once the Phase 1 applications from HISD residents have been processed, Phase 2 applications from HISD residents will be considered in the order in which they are received by HISD. In other words, Phase 2 admissions are carried out on a rolling basis; seats are offered as they become available, but only after all Phase 1 applicants have received their offers of admission or their spots on waitlists. This is why it is in the absolute best interest of HISD-zoned students to apply during Phase 1.
- Phase 3 takes place throughout June and July, and it is the only time during which the applications of eligible, out-of-district students are considered – even if applicants who live outside of HISD apply during Phase 1 or 2, their applications will not be considered until Phase 3. Even then, HISD residents still take priority during Phase 3, as out-of-district applications are not processed until there are no remaining applications from eligible, in-district students.
The bottom line for HISD residents is that you should consider the end of Phase 1 your application deadline; as long as you get your application in by that early-December cutoff (and consider your magnet program rankings carefully, as described above), this will maximize your chances for a spot in the school of your choice.
SUBMITTING YOUR APPLICATIONS
When the application process begins at the end of September, the magnet application can be found online here or on paper here. HISD recommends the online application as the easiest and most efficient application method, as it allows applicants to re-rank their magnet school choices prior to the Phase 1 deadline in December, view their application status online, upload any required documentation, and track their position on wait lists. It is important to note that returning online applicants should apply with the same online account they have used in the past.
To apply for each of your chosen magnet programs, you will simply fill out a form for each school you have selected. The application form is quick and straightforward, especially if you use the online version. It consists mostly of basic personal information about the prospective student, the student’s guardian(s), and any siblings who are already enrolled in HISD. Vanguard applications also include a space to designate recommending teachers.
Students who attended an HISD school for the entire preceding school year and who are currently enrolled in HISD are not required to submit any documents on top of the application for each school. If your child will be a first-time HISD student, however, you will need to provide all of the required documentation. Every application form will list the necessary documents for that particular school, but the requirements for a given grade level are standardized throughout the district. These documents can be uploaded online, sent by U.S. mail to the Office of School Choice, or dropped off in person at the Office of School Choice or to individual schools’ magnet offices.
Required documents may include:
- Proof of age, ideally a copy of your child’s birth certificate (for applicants to PreK or kindergarten)
- Proof of HISD residency, i.e. a utility bill
- The first grading period of the current year’s report card (for applicants to grades 1-12)
- Last year’s final report card (for applicants to grades 1-12)
- STAAR scores and/or Stanford scores (for applicants to grades 6-12)
Many schools only require the documents listed above, but some, particularly Vanguard schools, may require additional materials such as Parent or Teacher Recommendation Forms. Furthermore, if your child is applying to a dedicated Vanguard magnet and they have not already been identified as Gifted and Talented (G/T), you will also need to have them tested for G/T identification, which is a requirement for enrollment at a Vanguard magnet school (see “Determination of Qualification” below).
It’s a good idea to start gathering your supplementary documents before beginning the application form; that way, it’s one less thing to worry about. It’s especially important to start early if your child needs a teacher’s recommendation, since teachers tend to look more favorably on recommendation requests when they’re given at least 3 weeks’ notice.
Again, the deadline for Phase 1 applications is in early December, which gives plenty of time to get application forms filled out and to carefully assess (and re-assess) your school rankings.
DETERMINATION OF QUALIFICATION
When you’ve submitted all of your forms and materials, you will have little to no word about the process until late March, when admissions standings are made available. In the intervening months, school magnet coordinators will be hard at work processing hundreds of applications.
First, magnet coordinators will identify qualified applicants.
To be considered qualified for admission to a magnet school, children must meet any applicable age requirements, and they must also meet school-specific standards for attendance, conduct, and academic performance. Magnet coordinators use a district-wide rubric to assign each student a score between 1 and 100 for attendance, conduct, and academic performance across the core subjects. Both STAAR scores (or Iowa Assessment scores used for G/T testing, if applicable) and grades are factored in to academic performance scores. If all of a student’s scores meet or exceed the school’s designated minimum score – as indicated in this table – then the student’s application will advance to the next phase of the admissions process.
For most students, the magnet qualification process should not be a matter of concern – if your child is well-behaved, has relatively good attendance, and maintains a high C average or better, it should be nothing to worry about. However, if your child has had trouble with grades, discipline, or truancy, it may be wise to consult the minimum score table and cross-reference your child’s estimated matrix score to ensure that your child is not applying for programs from which they would be automatically disqualified.
Students applying to designated Vanguard magnets are judged by the same rubric for attendance, conduct, and academic performance, but they must also meet the additional qualifying requirement of Gifted/Talented status. HISD uses two matrices to determine G/T identification: one for applicants to kindergarten and one for current K-12 students. If your child has not already been identified as G/T in HISD, G/T testing must be requested before the Phase 1 application deadline; HISD students must test at their current school, and students who are not yet enrolled in HISD must test at the HISD school they are zoned to attend. More information about G/T testing for application to Vanguard magnet programs can be found here.
Since HISD has only one window for G/T testing, only students who have been identified as Gifted and Talented before the Phase 1 deadline in December are eligible for enrollment in Vanguard magnet schools.
THE ADMISSIONS LOTTERY
When all qualified Phase 1 applicants have been identified, the magnet coordinators will fill the available seats using a lottery system. This means that students are selected at random. The process is typically automated – a computer program will assign a random number to each student and then sort the numbers from least to greatest, giving each student a ranking.
Every HISD magnet school reserves 25% of available seats at the prime entry level – i.e. kindergarten, sixth grade, or ninth grade – for siblings of currently enrolled students who will still be enrolled when the applicants matriculate. If the number of sibling applicants is less than or equal to the number of allotted seats, then all of them will be accepted, and any unfilled allotted seats will be re-assigned to the general lottery. Frequently, however, the number of sibling applicants exceeds the allotted number of spaces. When this happens, siblings are placed in a lottery for the available spaces, and those who are not awarded spaces end up at the top of the waitlist for the magnet program their sibling attends.
The majority of available spaces are then filled in the general lottery. All qualified, in-district students who applied in Phase 1 and who have not already been placed will be considered in this lottery. At many of Houston’s top-tier magnet schools, the general lottery will yield a waiting list of several hundred students. Students’ standing on the waiting list is determined by the same random number and sorting algorithm that governs admission – for instance, if there are 75 available spots, a student who was assigned the number 78 will be third on the waiting list.
As described above, late applicants and applicants from outside HISD are considered on a rolling basis in Phases 2 and 3, respectively, after all HISD-resident applications from Phase 1 have been processed. While the odds of enrollment in the most desirable magnet programs are very low here, spots in certain programs will still be available because not all of the students selected in the sibling lottery and the general lottery will accept their offers of admission, and because waitlisted students may choose to go elsewhere.
Eligible applicants who applied by the end of Phase 1 will be notified of their children’s status by the end of March.
WAITLISTS AND ACCEPTANCES
By the end of March, you will have received notice of your child’s ranking from every school to which you applied. There are two possible scenarios at this point: either your child has been accepted to one school (in which case applications to schools ranked lower on your list will have been dropped), or your child has been waitlisted at every school.
If your child is waitlisted for every school – which is unlikely, but possible, if you apply to a varied range of programs – don’t despair just yet. With the exception of the ten most coveted schools in all of HISD, the top 40 ranks or so of the waitlist are likely to be offered admission when students ranked ahead of them choose other schools. At some of the less sought-after middle schools, the first 80 or more waitlisted students are likely to be admitted, and many high schools will ultimately offer admission to more than 100 waitlisted students. So it’s quite reasonable to hold out hope for eventual admission to a waitlist school. However, it’s also wise to weigh other options during this time, especially if your child is in elementary school or is ranked below the probable admission range for middle and high schools.
If your child has been accepted into a program, congratulations on your good luck!
Upon acceptance to a magnet program, you will have two weeks to accept your student’s the offered seat by following the “Accept” link the the offer of admission, and to submit the following documents:
- Proof of age, for applicants to PreK or kindergarten (ideally a copy of your child’s birth certificate)
- Applicants to PreK3 or PreK4 must provide proof of age 3 or 4 by September 1.
- Applicants to kindergarten must provide proof of age 5 by September 1.
- Proof of HISD residency, i.e. a utility bill
- A signed entrance agreement, which will be provided by the school.
Of course, it’s possible that the school to which your child was accepted wasn’t your first choice, and that you’re still on the waitlist for a school you ranked higher when you applied. If you’re hoping for an eventual offer of admission from one of your waitlisted schools, should you still accept the offer you already have? Actually, yes. In a stark contrast to the college admissions process, school commitments are non-binding during the acceptance period. If you receive an offer from a school that you like better, simply tell the original school that you’re accepting a different offer and register your child at the second school. In this situation, it’s very important that you notify the original school and receive confirmation from them before accepting the new offer of admission. If you attempt to accept an offer of admission while you are already registered in HISD’s online system as having accepted an offer at another school, the system may reject your acceptance and automatically remove your child from all accepted students lists. With that being said, as long as all of the necessary paperwork is filled out by the 2-week deadline, you’re fine.
For offers that are extended more than two weeks after the initial round of acceptances at the end of March (which would apply to Phases 2 and 3 applicants), parents will have one week to accept the seat, submit the required documents, and sign the entrance agreement at the school to secure the seat.
When you’ve completed registration, you and your child can have a wonderful summer and look forward to a great education in the fall!
If you have questions this guide didn’t answer, ask other parents in our forums, check out HISD’s School Choice home page. Updates may also be posted under the Magnet/School Choice category of the HISD News Blog.
If you have school-specific questions, it may be best to contact the school’s magnet coordinator directly.
For other questions that cannot be answered by the existing online resources, you can ask a school magnet coordinator or contact the HISD Office of School Choice.
For more information about individual schools’ magnet programs, we encourage you to read our school profiles and visit schools’ websites. For more information about what kinds of programs are available, you can also check out HISD’s overview of program types.