Toughest ‘choice’ schools to get into aren’t always the ones expected

No one would say it’s easy to get into Suncoast High School or Dreyfoos School of the Arts, two of Palm Beach County’s most prestigious “choice” schools. Each school turns away three of every four students who apply.

But by the standards of the county’s most exclusive choice programs, Suncoast and Dreyfoos barely rate.

School crowding and expanding demand have combined to create far worse odds for parents hoping to get their kids admitted at more than two dozen of the county’s most popular choice programs, a Palm Beach Post analysis of school admissions data shows.

The bottom line for parents finishing choice program applications this week: Most should be braced for rejection.

In the county’s 30 most popular choice programs, which range from theater and music magnets to environmental science and dual-language curriculums, the odds of being accepted through the choice lottery last year were less than 1 in 5, according to The Post’s analysis.

Even at less-exclusive programs, the odds are stacked against families trying to gain entry into their preferred school. Half of the county’s 192 choice programs had acceptance rates of 1 in 3 or less, according to The Post’s analysis. Just 38 of the 192 programs this year accepted more than half of their applicants.

With choice programs as popular as ever, school district officials expect these steep odds to continue. This week, thousands of parents are submitting applications for the next school year in advance of Friday’s application deadline. The choice lottery will held in March, with parents notified of their child’s outcome by early April.

The rising popularity and sophistication of the county’s choice programs has created a perfect storm of sorts: increased demand combined with a shrinking number of seats for students who live outside their desired schools’ attendance zones.

That’s because the most highly regarded choice programs, which include specialized coursework to help prepare students for college study or professional careers, have become so popular that more students are enrolling at their own neighborhood schools, reducing the seats available for students hoping to transfer in. Overall, school district officials expect more than 16,000 students to apply to choice programs this year.

“Parents are becoming more educated about these programs,” said Peter Licata, the school district’s director of choice and career options, “and the more educated they become, the more they’re going to put in applications.”

The pinch has created outlandish competition in surprising places. The specialized programs at Dreyfoos School of the Arts and Suncoast Community High School are widely considered among the county’s most prestigious, but they are hardly the most difficult to get into.

Dreyfoos received 1,440 applications this past year and Suncoast received nearly 1,700. But each school had hundreds of seats to offer because both are “full choice” schools without attendance zones. Everyone attending has to apply as an outsider.

Overall, both high schools accepted roughly 25 percent of their applicants, an acceptance rate roughly on par with Emory University or the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

But the real squeeze is at many traditional schools already at or near capacity.

Take the county’s most exclusive choice program: the environmental science program at Pine Jog Elementary west of West Palm Beach.

The school operates on the grounds of a 140-acre environmental center and uses outdoor classes and hiking excursions to teach science and conservation.

“We have so many outdoor learning opportunities,” Principal Craig Sommer said. “It’s all about exposing children to the beauty of nature.”

The program is so popular among parents that the 950-student school is already essentially at capacity, even as many other elementary schools across the county sit half-empty.

That means precious few seats – just 10 for the current school year – are available for out-of-area students through the choice program’s lottery system. With 220 applicants, the 10 students who got in this year had to beat out 1-in-22 odds.

The phenomenon continues at the middle school level, where the most selective choice program was not at the vaunted BAK Middle School of the Arts but at Independence Middle School in Jupiter. There, the pre-med science program accepted just 22 students, fewer than 1 of every 10 applicants.

The most exclusive high school choice program? Not an arts magnet at Dreyfoos or the International Baccalaureate program at Suncoast. This year, it was Palm Beach Central High’s web and digital design program, which accepted 23 of its 220 applicants.

The program’s selectivity has less to do with its perceived prestige and more to do with the fact that the school’s student population is essentially at capacity, meaning little space for students from other school zones.

“Palm Beach Central is just in a huge area,” Licata said. “A lot of people are there and the school is full, so you can’t open up a lot of seats to go there.”

Though it’s not the hardest school to win entry to, BAK Middle is by far the most popular choice for applicants. This past year, nearly 2,250 students selected one of the school’s choice programs, some of which require auditions, as their first or second option. The second most popular school: Don Estridge High Tech Middle School in Boca Raton.

District officials say there are plenty of good choice programs with less daunting admission odds. The easiest programs to get into for the current school year was the IB “world school” program at Pahokee Elementary and Pahokee Middle Sr. High School, which admitted 34 of its 35 applicants.

The school district has tried in recent years to accommodate the high demand for certain choice programs by replicating them in other parts of the county. In 2013, for example, a new environmental science program was opened at Galaxy Elementary in Boynton Beach, partly in an attempt to provide an alternative to the Pine Jog program. Galaxy’s choice program accepted 30 percent of its applicants this year.

Licata said parents’ choices can sometimes have as much to do with where a school is and what the school’s grade is. Still, he acknowledged that the limited number of seats means that each year thousands of students don’t get into a choice program they had their heart set on.

“Those are hard things for a fifth-grader or an eighth-grader,” Licata said, “and we understand.”

Staff research Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.

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