Analysis of Houston School Choice Lottery for 2021-2022

The most popular Houston ISD (HISD) magnet schools for 2021-2022 remain River Oaks Elementary School, Pin Oak Middle School, and Carnegie Vanguard High School.

Families had relatively good chances of winning the lottery for admission to a desirable HISD magnet school for kindergarten (26% chance), sixth (53%), or ninth grade (40%)—the prime entry years for elementary, middle, and high school respectively.

Houston ISD Magnet Lottery applications by grade for 2021-2022.Registering a massive decline of 32% versus last year, only about 5.6% of HISD students participated in this year’s annual School Choice Lottery. 11,130 students submitted an average of 2.7 applications each for a total of 30,331 applications submitted during Phase I of the lottery. The number of applications submitted was up marginally from last year’s 2.6 but still only about half of the 5-applications-per-student program limit.

Undoubtedly the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic affected family outreach and enthusiasm; by comparison, HISD’s overall student enrollment declined by 6.4% from 210,000 to 196,493. However, HISD’s rather odd decision to move up the Phase I application deadline by a full month to early November almost certainly exacerbated the very low participation rates.

Applicants in this year’s School Choice Lottery were disproportionately Asian, white, and decently well-off. Compared to HISD’s overall student body, Asians were over-represented by 350%, whites by 204%, and the not-economically-disadvantaged by 251%. Conversely, Blacks and Hispanics were under-represented by 23% and 29% respectively.

The Best Houston Schools and Popularity in the Magnet Lottery

Identifying what defines a “good school” is a little like trying to do the same kind of comparison about the children that attend them—it’s highly subjective. For many parents, good schools are defined by high test scores or national and state recognition. For other parents, a good school is just one in a wealthy neighborhood or with new buildings.

HISD’s annual School Choice lottery is a unique opportunity for the traditional market forces of supply and demand to identify the district’s best schools. Whereas many families live in areas where they must attend a specific neighborhood school, the lottery enables every family in Houston to apply for a chance to attend a school of their choice.

Assuming that market forces work correctly, the “best Houston schools” will therefore also be the ones where the most families apply to (application numbers) and attend (yield rate) when given an offer of admission.

HISD Looks Forward

Houston public school enrollment over last 10 years.The pandemic year was tough for everyone but especially for K12 education and HISD. As the 2021-2022 school year starts, HISD will be looking to reverse a now multi-year trend in declining enrollment numbers which threaten its funding.

However, there is reason for hope. The all-female Board of Trustees is relatively new, and a new Superintendent will take the helm this summer. HISD has not had a permanent superintendent since Richard Carranza abruptly resigned after barely 18 months in mid-2018. This leadership team will continue fighting the Texas Education Agency’s desire to directly manage the district.

Summary of Key Findings

  1. High STAAR scores and rich neighborhoods reinforce the perennial favorite schools.
  2. Overall participation in the lottery was very low, but qualification rates were up.
  3. The lottery is very popular with wealthy, white, and Asian families.

Introduction to the Houston ISD Magnet School Choice Lottery

While all students residing in Houston ISD are automatically accepted into the school in their zoned neighborhood, the annual School Choice lottery allows families to apply to schools in other neighborhoods or to special schools that are “equal opportunity” in that none of the students come from the surrounding neighborhood.

​The ability to attend an “out of zone” (OOZ) school is particularly appealing if families live in a neighborhood zoned to a relatively poor performing school but cannot afford to spend an average of $3.5 million to buy into or rent in the neighborhood zone of number one River Oaks Elementary, for example.

However, parents must pay attention to a school’s unique program and admissions requirements. While some magnet schools enforce no requirements other than families be residents within HISD’s attendance zone, many schools have minimum qualifications such as that students be designated as Gifted and Talented (River Oaks Elementary), have a talented tongue for languages (Bellaire High School), or possess surprisingly good artistic ability (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). About 24% of applications this year were automatically rejected, because students did not actually meet the qualifications to attend a certain school.

For the 2021-2022 academic year lottery, students could have applied to a maximum of five schools, and they had to rank their schools in order of preference. The rank order did not affect the outcome of the lottery; it only affected how students were placed on a waitlist. If a student was admitted into a school they ranked higher than another school, they would not have been waitlisted at their lower-ranked school. The intended effect of this policy is to shorten waiting lists for all schools.

Timeline of the 2021-2022 Academic Year Lottery for Phase I

  1. November 6, 2020 — Deadline to submit application for the School Choice Lottery
  2. January 28, 2021 — Families were notified of the lottery results
  3. February 26, 2021 — Deadline for families to accept their offer of admission

Applicants are thrown into a randomized lottery. There are generally no ways to gain an advantage other than to:

  1. Take the necessary steps to be qualified to attend the desired school;
  2. Already have a sibling enrolled at a school and want to attend concurrently with the sibling next year;
  3. For pre-kindergarten only, qualify as disadvantaged.

Students may technically apply to most magnet schools up until the first day of school on August 23, 2021. However, applications submitted after Phase I are essentially guaranteed not to place into any desirable school, because all the seats would be already taken. Students will continually move off of the waiting list until the first day of school.

How to Read the Top Houston School Tables Below

  1. Theme indicates the type of magnet school; parents can learn more about the different themes at HISD’s website
  2. Apps refers to the number of applications received from out of zone (OOZ) students and excludes zoned neighborhood students
  3. Apps Q is the percentage of OOZ apps that are actually qualified to be considered for admission
  4. Seats are the number of spaces available to OOZ students and excludes availability for zoned students
  5. Accepted is the percent of qualified applicants offered admission on January 28, 2021
  6. Yield is the percent of applicants who had accepted their offer of admission by March 1, 2021
  7. Siblings are the percent of OOZ applicants from siblings of currently enrolled students
  8. Home Value is the average listing price of homes in the school’s neighborhood zone or immediate vicinity
  9. STAAR Math is the percent of all students at the school who earned the “Masters” designation on the STAAR math tests
  10. STAAR Reading is the percent of all students at the school who earned the “Masters” designation on STAAR reading tests

HISD presented this data as accurate on April 14, 2021, but the numbers will change continuously until school starts on as students finalize their enrollment plans. Click here to download the original dataset provided by Houston Independent School District (HISD).

Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet Elementary Schools for 2021-2022

The top Houston ISD magnet elementary schools for 2021 are River Oaks, Rogers, Harvard, Lovett, and Kolter. Other top elementary schools include West University, Twain, Roberts, and Bush; however, these schools are only available to zoned neighborhood students and not part of the lottery.

For the 2021-2022 academic year, 1,728 students submitted 5,066 applications for kindergarten to 57 HISD elementary schools. The number of applying students was down 31% versus last year. Kindergarten is the “prime entry” year for most HISD Elementary schools, meaning that it is the year when most seats are available. River Oaks and Rogers elementary schools are perenially the most popular by far, receiving nearly twice as many applications as the third most popular Harvard Elementary. River Oaks Elementary is located in the prestigious River Oaks neighborhood; Rogers is an application-only school located near the Galleria, and Harvard Elementary is located in the increasingly posh Houston Heights.

Houston's top elementary schools for 2021.Most popular River Oaks Elementary School received 650 applicants, but only 45% of those students were qualified, meaning that 55% of them lacked the gifted and talented designation. Students must qualify as gifted and talented to attend a vanguard magnet program like River Oaks. The school had 57 seats available to lottery students or about half of its kindergarten class. 20% of qualified applicants received an offer of admission, and every single one of them accepted the offer. Just 2% of applicants were from siblings.

Parents are really only interested in the top third of HISD’s magnet elementary schools, which collectively offered 2,406 kindergarten seats. These 17 schools offered just 28% of available seats but received 87% of the applications. At these top schools, parents had about a 25% chance of admission and accepted that offer 83% of the time.

These schools are academically rigorous when measured by STAAR scores. On average 44% of students score at the highest level of the STAAR (“Masters”) in Math and Reading versus 23% and 20% respectively for HISD as a whole.

More than half of applicants to the vanguard schools including River Oaks, Rogers, and Travis failed to qualify as gifted and talented; vanguard schools only accepted gifted and talented students. This large number of disqualified applicants meant that the qualified population ended up having their chances of admission more than double.

Oak Forest Elementary ended up being a popular tease again this year. A surprising 21% increase in applications allowed it to jump an impressive 8 spots as most other schools saw significant declines in applications. However, just like last year, Oak Forest had no seats available as its zoned neighborhood population hungrily accepted all space available; as such, Oak Forest is at significant risk of losing its magnet status.

Likewise, parents have a very slim chance of getting their children into Harvard Elementary or Wilson Montessori given those school’s popularity and few available seats. Note that Wilson Montessori has been renamed for the 2021-2022 school year to Baker Montessori but is otherwise the exact same school located in Houston’s Montrose neighborhood.

Special Sibling Lottery Affords Best Chances to Currently Enrolled Families

Siblings of currently enrolled and continuing students have a greater chance of admission in HISD magnet schools because up to 25% of a school’s available seats are reserved exclusively for siblings. If more siblings apply than those 25% of reserved seats allow, then siblings get to participate in both the “sibling lottery” and the general lottery. At the top 17 elementary schools, about 10% of applicants qualify for the sibling lottery.

The number of siblings participating also helps to show parent satisfaction with a school. If parents of a currently enrolled student are happy then it follows that they would be likely to try to send their younger children to the same school.

Parents seem satisfied with these top 17 schools as sibling applicants account for an average of 52% of available seats. Parents seem particularly happy at Travis, Wilson, and Sinclair where sibling applicants could account for more than 100% of the available seats.

The Best Performing HISD Elementary Schools are Increasingly Out of Reach

Some of the district’s top performing elementary schools by STAAR scores are inaccessible via magnet programs. West University, Roberts, Twain, and Bush elementary Schools are not part of the magnet lottery, because their popularity among neighborhood families means that there is no space available to accommodate out of zone, magnet transfer students.

Unlike at the middle school and high school level, HISD offers only a single “magnet-only” elementary school (TH Rogers) that does not have to serve both a zoned neighborhood population and magnet transfers. The result of this gap is that the best elementary schools will continue to “wealth-out” of the lottery as they become so popular with the neighborhood families that no space remains for out of zone transfers.

Wharton, Oak Forest, and Garden Oaks are likely to also exit the magnet lottery program in the near future; neither Oak Forest nor Garden Oaks offered seats for the last two years. These schools are also located in increasingly gentrifying neighborhoods.

There are three primary exceptions to this trend. River Oaks Elementary consistently has space available for magnet students as the demographics of its uber-wealthy neighborhood are relatively stable. Also, the Mandarin and Arabic dual language schools do not have a neighborhood population but do naturally require students to learn or already be proficient in Mandarin or Arabic.

With the exception of Bush Elementary in far west Houston, West University, Twain, and Roberts are in neighborhoods where home values generally exceed $1 million or more.


Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet Middle Schools for 2021-2022

The top Houston ISD middle schools are Pin Oak and Lanier. Rogers and Pershing are somewhat distant third and fourth favorites.  While third in popularity overall, Rogers is the district’s best middle school by STAAR test scores.

For the 2021-2022 academic year, 2,795 students submitted 7,916 applications for sixth grade to 35 HISD middle school programs. These numbers were down 32% versus the previous year’s lottery. Sixth grade is the “prime entry” year for most HISD middle schools, meaning that it is the year when most seats are available.Pin Oak, Lanier, and Rogers remain the most popular middle schools in the city with Pin Oak being the most favored by far with nearly double the applications of Rogers. However, Rogers is academically the best middle school in HISD by STAAR scores.Houston's top middle schools for 2021.

Most popular Pin Oak Middle School received 1,773 applicants and all 100% of those students were qualified, meaning that there were no special requirements for admission unlike Lanier, which is a vanguard magnet program. Pin Oak had 140 seats available to lottery students or about a third of its 6th grade class. Only 11% of qualified applicants received an offer of admission, and every single one of them accepted the offer. Siblings of currently enrolled and continuing students accounted for 4% of applicants.

Of the 11 middle schools that received more than the average number of applications, families had a very good 51% chance of admission; however, those chances fell to just under 30% among the top 4.

Yield rates among the top 3 middle schools – Pin Oak, Lanier, and Rogers, were nearly 100% as admitted families eagerly accepted their offers of admission; however, Pershing stands out for its lower 68% yield rate.

Pin Oak, Hogg, and Rice had very high “loyalty rates,” meaning that parents of currently enrolled students seemed happy enough to also want to send their younger children to the same school. These three schools could fill upwards of 50% of their available seats with just siblings alone if they were allowed to do so; only 25% of seats are reserved for siblings after which families must still participate in the general lottery.

Limited HISD Middle School Choices Drive Families Away

HISD Enrollment by grade showing 20% drop off at middle school

According to TEA enrollment data for 2019-2020, HISD lost about 20% of students making the transition from 5th grade elementary to 6th grade middle school as seemingly dissatisfied families left the district for suburban, private, or charter school alternatives.

It doesn’t help that with 34 programs on offer, HISD offers the fewest choices at middle school compared to elementary (57) and high school (38). And of those 34 programs, only 11 received more than the average number of applications, and really only the top 3 or 4 schools stand out as clearly more desirable than the rest.

There are at least two key factors driving limited choice at middle school versus elementary and high school:

  1. Middle schools are bigger than elementary schools so there are fewer of them. For example, enrollment at most popular River Oaks Elementary is just 674 students versus 1213 at most popular Pin Oak Middle School. Fewer schools may leave less room for differentiation between campuses.
  2. HISD middle schools generally only span three years—grades 6, 7, and 8—compared with at least 6 years for elementary schools (K-5) and 4 years for high schools (9-12). It may be more difficult for middle school administrators to execute on campus-level marketing and achievement goals in such a relatively short amount of time.

This confluence of factors has the potential for families without means to undervalue or underachieve in middle school. The non-profit which administers the ACT college admissions test has warned of the “Forgotten Middle.” The essential findings from their research are:

  1. The focus on college and career readiness should begin at middle school.
  2. Academically weaker students need to be identified and supported strongly at middle school.
  3. The transition from middle school to high school is just as important as the transition from high school to college.

Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet High Schools for 2021-2022

The top five Houston ISD high schools are Carnegie Vanguard, DeBakey, Bellaire, Lamar, and HSPVA.

For the 2021-2022 academic year, 4,146 students submitted 12,389 applications for ninth grade to 38 HISD high school programs, which represents a 27% decline versus last year. Students applied to nearly 3 schools each, which was more than their kindergarten and 6th grade counterparts.  Ninth grade is the “prime entry” year for most HISD high schools, meaning that it is the year when most seats are available.
Houston's top high schools for 2021.
Carnegie and Debakey are Houston’s Top High Schools

Carnegie and DeBakey are HISD’s top high schools by academic results and national recognition. US News ranks Carnegie #42 and Debakey #46 nationally. As such, it’s no surprise they’re also the most popular among Houston families. With 133 more applicants or over 10% more, Carnegie decisively beat DeBakey to claim the crown as the most popular HISD high school. However, both schools are great choices, and qualified students had between a 20% and 30% chance of getting into Carnegie or DeBakey respectively; DeBakey is relatively easier to get into because its student population is about 35% larger than Carnegie.

Most popular Carnegie Vanguard received 1,377 applicants, but only 84% of those students were qualified, meaning that 16% of them lacked the gifted and talented designation. All 232 of Carnegie’s 9th grade seats were available to lottery students as there is no zoned, neighborhood population. Just 20% of qualified applicants received an offer of admission, and every single one of them accepted the offer. Siblings of currently enrolled and continuing students accounted for 5% of applicants.

While both Carnegie and DeBakey produce excellent STAAR scores, DeBakey stands out with almost 100% of its students scoring at the highest level in mathematics. These amazing test results probably have to do with the fact that DeBakey requires applicants to pass a rigorous math assessment and complete Algebra I before enrolling—an application hurdle that Carnegie does not impose.

However, if parents are worried that Carnegie lacks rigor in mathematics, they should know that by SAT scores, there’s barely any distance between DeBakey and Carnegie; DeBakey students scored an average of 705/800 versus Carnegie’s 695/800. And Carnegie absolutely blows DeBakey out of the water when it comes to graduating National Merit Semifinalists—students who score in the top 1% on the PSAT.

Heights High School Seeks to Form the “Top 6 Houston High Schools”

Bellaire, Lamar, and HSPVA are generally mentioned in the same breath as Carnegie and DeBakey to round out the top 5 HISD high schools. However, Heights High School is looking to cement its status among Houston’s most coveted high schools and a third “generalist” option to Bellaire and Lamar, which are both in well-to-do communities. The increasing gentrification and improving STAAR scores of the Houston Heights will undoubtedly allow it to achieve this goal.

HISD’s Early College Schools Rise in Prominence

Houston’s Early College high schools are increasingly earning their place among the district’s elite offerings. These high schools are unique in that graduating students earn not only a high school diploma but also a college Associate’s degree, which is a 2-year counterpart to the 4-year Bachelor’s degree. Ideally, graduates would then use this 2-year degree as a way to get a jump start on their college Bachelor’s degree.

Among the top schools from this year’s magnet lottery, Challenge, East, and North Early College High Schools stand out not only for their rising popularity but also their impressively high STAAR math test scores. It’s quite possible that the increasing success of the Early College high schools is helping HISD bring back many of the students it lost to alternatives in middle school—particularly Hispanic and Black students who had left for charter schools.

Although HISD’s comparatively wide selection of top high schools helps bring families back into public education, it still isn’t doing enough to retain its most vulnerable students. Nearly 30% of freshmen will not make it through senior year, which compares very unfavorably to the state public school average of 10%.

About General Academic

For more than 17 years, Rice Village-based General Academic has provided tutoring, test preparation, and consulting services in addition to producing publications like this one.

​This analysis is based off of data acquired from HISD through the Texas Freedom of Information Act and looks specifically at the numbers available on March 1, 2021. This date is significant, because it specifically reflects the outcome from Phase I of the lottery, which is the only phase when seats are available at popular schools.

HISD presented this data as accurate on April 14, 2021. Click here to download the original dataset provided by Houston Independent School District (HISD). 

This article was last updated on September 29, 2021.


  • Shelby Joe

    Shelby Joe (周) is General Academic's Founder. A Mississippi native, Shelby graduated from Rice University with a BA in Political Science in 2007, where he still mentors students. He has lived in both China and Germany; he speaks Chinese Mandarin and German. He is also the Founder of the edtech company Piqosity.

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