Magnet application glitches leave parents ‘frustrated’ Communication breakdowns tough for anxious families awaiting decision

After homework was finished on Monday afternoon, Trena Walker keeps an eye on her son Myles (from left) and his friends Zhymell and Rhyen Kenny in their North Charleston neighborhood. Wade Spees/Staff

The admissions process for Charleston County choice and magnet schools has been riddled with errors and miscommunication, according to many parents who received acceptance and rejection letters late last week.

“I got frustrated the minute I tried because the website for the schools didn’t work properly,” said Trena Walker, a North Charleston parent who applied to 10 choice schools for her 7-year-old son, Myles.

The school district debuted its new website for online applications Jan. 4, hoping to make the process more accessible with the Smart Choice application suite from Louisiana-based Firefly Digital.

The district almost immediately had to shut the site down for a week to deal with technical difficulties.

Mary Runyon, who oversees the school district’s choice school programs, said the purpose of the new online application was “to expand access to our choice offerings and provide equity for all families.”

The school district received 8,000 applications for seats at its choice schools this year, nearly double the amount received in the previous year.

“Like any new system, there have been hiccups along the way,” Runyon said. “We have received invaluable feedback from the families we serve and look forward to a more seamless process next year.”

School board member Kate Darby said she heard from several parents about problems with the application process.

“I’m sure (the district) will be evaluating whether we should continue with the current system and whether we can tweak it and improve it,” Darby said.

When it comes to choice school admissions, the stakes are high for the Walker family. Myles is zoned to attend Chicora Elementary, a high-poverty school with consistently low test scores and poor marks on state report cards.

“I have never met anyone who said, ‘Oh, I want my kid to go to Chicora,’ ” Walker said. “We feel desperate. ... Just because I’m poor doesn’t mean that I want anything less than the richest person in the United States for the education of my child.”

Myles currently attends Mitchell Math and Science Elementary, a partial magnet school downtown that Walker said has been good for him, but she said she wants an even better option. She fired off applications in January to 10 choice schools, including her top pick, the elite Buist Academy. On Jan. 28, the district sent her a series of emails announcing that Myles was “verified as eligible” for several schools.

She was elated, thinking Myles had made it through the initial lottery at Buist and would be able to take the admissions test. But when she called the district to confirm the good news, she was told the email had gone out in error.

As of Monday, Walker only knew for certain that Myles had been accepted to the Montessori program at Murray-Lasaine Elementary on James Island. She knows Myles is on a waiting list at Buist, but the district can’t tell her where he stands on it. She has until March 11 to accept or decline enrollment at Murray-Lasaine.

Communication breakdowns abounded throughout the application process. On Feb. 3, the district sent emails to several parents saying their children were ineligible for the Buist lottery because they would be turning 6 before Sept. 1 — an abrupt and unexplained policy change.

Parents like Cara Applegate called the district office in a panic.

“There are all these failing schools, (Buist is) the golden ticket, and this was sneaky and contrived. Why didn’t we get notice one year ago?” Applegate said at the time.

That night, the district emailed Applegate and other parents saying the messages had been sent in error.

The district ended up receiving 1,280 applications for Buist this year, according to Runyon. Fifty kindergarten students were accepted.

West Ashley parent Liz Whitworth originally was a fan of the online application process, at least in theory. But when she tried to help her fifth-grade daughter apply to the creative writing program at Charleston County School of the Arts, she encountered headache after headache.

Whitworth ended up having to take a physical copy of her daughter’s report card to the school when the website wouldn’t let her upload one. She later received a rejection email, only to find out later that her daughter still had a chance.

On Saturday, the final day for the district to notify applicants according to its own timeline, the district sent Whitworth an email saying the rejection notice had been erroneously sent “to all grade levels for the first 50 students.”

On Monday morning, two days after the deadline, Whitworth received an email with the final word: Her daughter had not made the cut.

Whitworth said she understands glitches happen, and her daughter will be fine at her regular middle school. “Life will go on,” she said.

But the real problem, she said, was the lack of communication from the district. Every time the process hit a snag, she said she and other parents felt completely in the dark, getting nowhere with the district office and refreshing the district’s Facebook page every few minutes for updates that never came.

“These kids put their heart and soul into the auditions,” Whitworth said. “You just want to be able to tell them something, one way or the other.”

Firefly Digital has not responded to a phone request for comment.

Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546 or twitter.com/paul_bowers.