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
a) apply to as many schools as possible and
b) 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, 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.
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 2015 for a 2016 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 in early- to mid-November.
While considering prospective schools, we encourage you to take full advantage of our advice pages and check out our profiles of HISD’s top magnet schools.
HISD provides several resources to help parents choose the best schools for their children. Throughout October (and sporadically in November and December), parents can attend Parent Information Nights, where school representatives are available to answer questions and give information about specific programs. The school district also hosts a Magnet Open House in early November, shortly before the application period opens. 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. For 2015 scheduling and location information, click here.
HISD allows parents to apply to up to 10 magnet schools per student. To maximize the odds of admission, it’s a good idea to select 4-6 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 2015 application cycle (for the 2016-2017 school year), order matters. You will be asked to rank your choices from one to ten. 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, accountability and ratings, budget, single-sex vs. coeducational classroom settings, and the availability of advanced curricula such as IB and AP.
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 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 below, Vanguard applications require extra materials and testing to ascertain that a student is 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. Even if your child is already certified as G/T, HISD only allows up to five Vanguard applications per student per year.
*It is important to note that dedicated Vanguard magnets are different from Vanguard Neighborhood schools. Most HISD magnet schools have Vanguard 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 Vanguard Neighborhood option for your child, click here for more information. If you want to know more about the difference between dedicated Vanguard magnets and Vanguard Neighborhood schools, check out our Vanguard advice page.
Submitting Your Applications
A magnet application has two components:
1. the application form itself and
2. supplementary documents.
The form is made available here in early October, but if you want to be ahead of the game, you can start gathering supplementary materials even before then.
The supplementary documents are what the school will use to ascertain that your child is eligible for admission. 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.
Parents whose children are already enrolled in HISD schools typically do not need to provide proof of HISD residency, and in many cases, these children's required report card and test score documentation can be obtained directly from the school by magnet coordinators. However, it's still a good idea to gather report cards and scores for your HISD-enrolled children, just in case. (These documents can also help you gauge whether your child is likely to be qualified for magnet programs - see below.)
If your child will be a first-time HISD student, you will need all of the required documentation.
If your child will be in PreK3 or PreK4, you will need:
If your child will be in kindergarten, you will need:
If your child will be in any of the grades 1-5, you will need:
If your child will be in any of the grades 6-12, you will need:
Many schools only require the documents listed above, but some, particularly Vanguard schools, require additional materials as well.
If your child is applying to kindergarten at a dedicated Vanguard magnet, you will also need:
If your child is applying to any of the grades 1-12 at a dedicated Vanguard magnet, you will also need:
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.
When the application period opens in October, you will fill out a form for each school you have selected. The application form can be filled out online here, or if you’d prefer a hard copy, you can download a printable version here. 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.
Once you’ve submitted the application form for each school, you will select one of the schools and submit your supplementary materials, either by mail or in person. This school will be designated as your primary school. The designation of a school as primary doesn’t mean your child will be given preference there, nor does it mean that they will be at a disadvantage for admission to other schools. The primary school is simply the one that processes your materials and arranges for any necessary testing, such as Woodcock-Johnson III testing for incoming kindergarteners in Vanguard programs. If any of your prospective schools are dedicated Vanguard magnets, you must select a dedicated Vanguard magnet as your primary school; otherwise, you can select any one of your prospective schools.
Applications and most supplementary materials are due by December 18. This means that if you start in October, you should have plenty of time to complete the application without stressing.
While late applications will still technically be considered, we strongly recommend that you submit your application by the deadline in order to maximize your chances of admission.
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 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. HISD is expected to post a matrix score calculator online here.
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. If your child is already identified as G/T, qualification will be determined based on the G/T Identification Matrix you submitted. If your child has not already been identified as G/T, your primary school will contact you to schedule Woodcock-Johnson III or NNAT-2 testing, typically in January or February. Your child’s Woodcock-Johnson III or NNAT-2 score will then be considered, along with other factors, according to the same matrix - or according to this one, if your child is entering kindergarten. For rising kindergarteners, the minimum total score for G/T status is 68; for other grades, the minimum score is 62.
The Admission Lottery
When all qualified 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.
There are actually three separate lotteries during this phase:
1. A sibling lottery
2. A general lottery
3. A latecomers/out-of-district lottery
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, all sibling applications are placed in a lottery, and students are selected at random to fill the reserved spaces. Students who are not selected in the sibling lottery will then be considered in the general lottery, on an equal footing with non-sibling applicants.
The majority of available spaces are filled in the general lottery, the second part of the lottery phase. All qualified students who have not already been placed will be considered in this lottery, provided that they live within HISD and provided that the application was submitted on time. (For out-of-district and late applicants, see below.) 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.
The final lottery, which accommodates late applicants and applicants from outside HISD, actually occurs much later, in June. There’s a good reason for this - if these applicants were considered during the same time frame as the general lottery, the long waiting lists would preclude them from any hope of admission. But of course, not all of the students selected in the sibling lottery and the general lottery will accept their offers of admission, and if most waitlisted students choose to go elsewhere, there may still be vacant spots when the deadline to accept offers has passed. The third lottery fills these leftover spaces.
There’s no guarantee that any such spaces will exist, though, so if you live within HISD, we strongly recommend that you submit your applications on time so as to be considered in the general lottery. However, if you live outside of HISD, you lose nothing by trying your luck with the third lottery, so long as you have a solid back-up plan in place.
For the sibling lottery and the general lottery, parents will be notified of their children’s rankings on or before March 24.
Waitlists, Acceptances, and Committing to a School
By March 24, 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, 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! Of course, it’s possible that the school to which your child was accepted wasn’t your first choice. 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.* As long as all of the necessary paperwork is filled out by the deadline of April 4, you’re fine. Of course, you don’t have to accept the initial offer of admission immediately, especially if you’re near the top of the waitlist for a school you would prefer. But if you do, rest assured that you can change your mind.
If your child is accepted to multiple schools, many congratulations! You have quite literally won the lottery. What now? If only one of the acceptances came from a top-choice school, then the path forward is fairly clear. You can commit to your top-choice school and celebrate your good fortune. Before doing this, however, it’s a good idea to weigh all of your options and make sure you’re absolutely sure that that school is still one of your top choices. Carefully considering your options is important because accepting an offer at one school will cause your child’s other original offers to automatically be rescinded. Waitlist rankings will remain unchanged, and you will still be able to switch to a waitlist school if your child is offered admission there, but any other schools at which your child was initially accepted will be off the table.
*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.
Registering at Your Child's New School
When you have selected an offer to accept, you must register your child for that school by the acceptance deadline of April 4 in order to secure your child’s space in the program.
To register your child, follow the “Accept” link in the offer of admission for your desired school. This link will take you to an entrance agreement form. After electronically signing the form, print it out and bring it to your child’s new school, along with proof of HISD residency and any other documents requested by the school, to complete the registration process. (For more information about the materials schools typically request for registration, see the page on zoned student registration.)
If you are offered admission after the third-round lottery, you will follow this same process, but at a correspondingly later date - administrators will advise you of any deadlines.
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, or check out HISD's School Choice 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, check out HISD’s overview of program types and our in-depth descriptions of the Montessori and IB K-12 curricula.
Article last updated October 19, 2015
Join the Discussion