Buist Academy front

Buist Academy in downtown Charleston received 1,931 applications from across the county this spring. The students were vying for 52 seats. File/Staff

A child in Charleston County has a better chance of going to an Ivy League college than getting into Buist Academy, a downtown public magnet school serving kindergarten through eighth grade.

Buist had a 2.7-percent acceptance rate for its fall 2018 class, making it more selective than Harvard University (5 percent), Yale (6 percent) or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (8 percent).

Applications to magnet and charter schools are on the rise, and not just at the academic powerhouse Buist. The Charleston County School District received 12,991 applications from 6,035 students this year via its Smart Choice website, which handles applications for all magnet schools and most of its charter schools.

Charleston County was an early adopter of public charter, magnet and Montessori schools, starting in the 1990s. It added 15 new magnet or partial-magnet programs between 2007 and 2014 under a school-choice expansion led by then-Superintendent Nancy McGinley.

While demand has grown every year since, the supply of available seats has stayed more or less the same. As families pull their children out of neighborhood schools, some of these traditional schools have been left behind, sitting less than half-full with flagging academic reputations.

The number of school choice applications doubled between 2015 and 2016, reaching a record high of 8,000. The number jumped to 9,306 in 2017, then soared by another 40 percent during this year's one-month application window.

Most of Charleston County's magnet and charter schools hold a lottery if they receive more applications than they have available seats.

At Buist, students must win a lottery and then pass an academic test. Academic Magnet High and School of the Arts have their own selective application processes.

The school district sent out 5,675 seat offers Friday afternoon, in some cases sending multiple offers to individual students. Families have until March 28 to accept or decline offers, at which point the remaining seats will be offered to students on waiting lists.

"It feels like you’re applying to college at a very early age," said Ragan DuBose-Morris, a West Ashley parent. Her son currently sits at No. 180 on a waiting list at Orange Grove Charter Middle School.

On her own block, DuBose-Morris said students attend five different elementary schools. In a letter last week expressing her frustration to school officials, she wrote that the competition for elite magnet schools is tearing the fabric of communities.

"Until all of our children have a more equal playing field, and our streets house families who feel free to work together for the good of their community, we will be a poorer society," she wrote. "We are teaching an inflated lesson about the luck of the draw and how we value education in this county. This has to change as it is not sustainable."

This year's surge in school choice applications was no accident. The district expanded its outreach efforts for magnet and charter schools this year, buying a billboard along Interstate 26 and holding school choice fairs across the district where employees helped families navigate the web-based application.

From a technical standpoint, this year's application process might have been the smoothest since the district switched over to its web-based app in 2016. The website crashed shortly after launching in the first year, forcing the district to extend its deadlines.

The district was able to fix most of the kinks last year, said Barbara Rabon, the district's coordinator of school choice programs. This year, it added a mobile phone-friendly version of the site to make it more accessible to families without a home computer.

Robin Jones, executive director of instructional programs, said the district has "a lot of awesome schools" that sometimes get overshadowed by magnets and charters.

"I think sometimes, because of this public perception and this frenzy because of an application process, sometimes parents don’t even have all the information about the neighborhood school," Jones said. 

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.

Paul Bowers is an education reporter and father of three living in North Charleston. He previously worked at the Charleston City Paper, where he was twice named South Carolina Journalist of the Year in the weekly category.