Analysis of Houston School Choice Lottery for 2023-2024
The most popular Houston ISD (HISD) magnet schools for 2023-2024 are River Oaks Elementary School, Pin Oak Middle School, and Carnegie Vanguard High School. The application cycle for the 2023-2024 school year took place the previous year, between 2022-2023.
Families had relatively decent chances of winning the lottery for admission to a desirable HISD magnet school for kindergarten (19% chance), sixth (24%), or ninth grade (23%)—the prime entry years for elementary, middle, and high school respectively.
Applications to HISD magnet schools have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. A total of 15,217 students, about 8% of the district’s enrollment, submitted 39,944 applications during Phase I of the lottery. On average, each student applied to 2.6 schools but more than 42% of applications submitted were deemed “unqualified,” meaning that students lacked the requirements to attend a certain school—such as being gifted and talented, being an exceptionally good artist, or possessing a knack for foreign languages.
Who Participated in the HISD School Choice Lottery
As with previous years, applicants in this year’s School Choice Lottery were disproportionately Asian and White. 43.4% of students in the lottery self-identified as white, but only 9.7% of HISD’s enrollment is white, meaning that whites were over-represented by 448%.
Asians were over-represented by 254% (11.4% of lottery vs 4.5% of district). Blacks were represented nearly proportionately (21% vs 22%) but Hispanics were underrepresented by 77% (47% vs 62%).
Lottery participants were most interested in middle and high schools. Approximately 31% of would-be 6th and 9th graders participated in the lottery versus just 16% of would-be kindergarteners.
After HISD switched to a new application for the 2022-2023 school year, it stopped tracking data about family income. However, in the last year that the district collected the data, the non-economically disadvantaged were over-represented in the lottery by over 250%.
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 most 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.
Magnet Schools Are Also Up for Review in State Takeover
The number of students enrolled in HISD continues to fall in stark contrast to Houston’s booming population. This school year marks the first after the state takeover of the district. Mike Miles, the new state-appointed superintendent, is planning on big changes, including re-evaluating jobs, adding days to the school year, and reducing truancy.
Most major reforms had previously been limited to lower-performing schools and not desirable magnet schools. However there are some signs that changes are also coming to magnet schools for the 2024-2025 school year. In a letter sent to parents on October 16, 2023, HISD announced that a major overhaul to the magnet lottery program will take place for the next school year. The relatively short notice likely means that this year’s lottery process will start later in December and extend into January of 2024.
Summary of Key Findings
- High STAAR and SAT scores plus rich neighborhoods reinforce the perennial favorite schools.
- Overall participation in the lottery is up but unqualified applications remain high.
- The lottery is very popular with affluent 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 $2.7 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 talent for languages (Bellaire High School), or possess surprisingly good artistic ability (High School for the Performing and Visual Arts). About 42% of applications this year were automatically rejected, because students did not actually meet the qualifications to attend a certain school.
For the 2022-2023 lottery, students could have applied to a maximum of ten 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.
Click here learn more about how to apply to an HISD magnet school.
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 8% 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. At “high satisfaction” schools, applications from siblings alone could fill upwards of 40% of available seats if they were allowed.
Timeline of the 2023-2024 Academic Year Lottery for Phase I
For students applying in the 2022-2023 lottery for admission into the 2023-2024 academic year, the deadline dates were as follows:
- December 14, 2022 — Phase I of the School Choice Lottery opens
- April 5, 2023 — Families were notified of the lottery results
- April 15, 2023 — 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:
- Take the necessary steps to be qualified to attend the desired school;
- Already have a sibling enrolled at a school and want to attend concurrently with the sibling next year;
- For pre-kindergarten only, qualify as disadvantaged
Students may technically apply to most magnet schools up until the first day of school in August. 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 the waiting list until the first day of school.
How to Read the Top Houston School Tables Below
- Theme indicates the type of magnet school; parents can learn more about the different themes at HISD’s website
- Apps refers to the number of applications received from out-of-zone (OOZ) students and excludes zoned neighborhood students
- Apps Q is the percentage of OOZ apps that are actually qualified to be considered for admission
- Seats are the number of spaces available to OOZ students and excludes availability for zoned students
- Accepted is the percent of qualified applicants over the number of available seats
- Siblings are the percent of OOZ applicants from siblings of currently enrolled students
- Home Value is the current average listing price of homes in the school’s neighborhood zone or immediate vicinity
- STAAR/SAT Math is the percent of all students at the school who earned the “Masters” designation on the STAAR/SAT math tests
- STAAR/SAT Reading is the percent of all students at the school who earned the “Masters” designation on STAAR/SAT reading tests
HISD presented these data as accurate on September 11, 2023. Click here to download the original dataset provided by Houston Independent School District (HISD).
Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet Elementary Schools for 2022-2023
The top Houston ISD magnet elementary schools for 2023 are River Oaks, Rogers, Parker, Oak Forest, and Travis. 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 students applying to the 2023-2024 academic year, 2,176 students submitted 5,608 applications for kindergarten to 159 HISD elementary schools. The number of applying students was up 36.7% versus our last comparison. 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 perennially the most popular by far, but this year Parker Elementary jumped considerably, receiving over 50% more applications than two years ago*. River Oaks Elementary is located in the prestigious River Oaks neighborhood; Rogers is an application-only school located near the Galleria, and Parker Elementary is nestled in the transition zone between Meyerland and Westbury.
As the most popular choice, River Oaks Elementary School received 560 applicants, but only 39% of those students were qualified, meaning that 61% 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 71 seats available to lottery students, and 32% of qualified applicants received an offer of admission. Fewer than 5% of applicants were from siblings.
Parents are really only interested in the top third of HISD’s magnet elementary schools, which collectively offered 816 kindergarten seats. These 17 schools offered just 30% of available seats but received 78% of the applications. At these top schools, parents had about a 19% chance of admission.
These schools are academically rigorous when measured by STAAR scores. On average 41% of students score at the highest level of the STAAR (“Masters”) in Math and Reading versus 20% for HISD as a whole.
The biggest surprise this year came from Parker Elementary, which increased its number of applications by 50% from two years ago. Parker is enticing families with its whole-student, approach, which uses fine arts as a tool to teach literacy skills, foster motivation and self-expression, and grow its students as both artists and scholars. With no qualification requirements, Parker had an acceptance rate of 14%, making it one of the most difficult schools to get into. Note that Parker is also a zoned neighborhood school and fills about 50% of its available seats with the neighborhood children.
The Best Performing HISD Elementary Schools are in Rich Neighborhoods
Some of the district’s top performing elementary schools by STAAR scores are inaccessible via magnet programs. West University, Roberts, Horn, 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.
With the exception of Bush Elementary in far west Houston, inaccessible West University, Horn, Twain, and Roberts are in neighborhoods where home values generally exceed $1 million or more.
Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet Middle Schools for 2022-2023
The top Houston ISD middle schools are Pin Oak and Lanier. Pershing and Meyerland are close third and fourth. While fifth in popularity overall, Rogers is the district’s best middle school by STAAR test scores.
For students applying for the 2023-2024 academic year, 3,742 students submitted 11,258 applications for sixth grade to 39 HISD middle school magnet programs. 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 and Lanier remain the most popular middle schools in HISD. But Rogers, which used to hold the #3 spot, fell in popular ranking due to the large increase in applications for Pershing and Meyerland. However, TH Rogers is still #1 when it comes to its students’ STAAR performance.
Of the top middle schools that received more than the average number of applications, families had a very good 56% chance of admission; however, those chances fell to just 24% among the top five middle schools.
Pin Oak is one of the schools with a consistently 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. Pin Oak could fill upwards of 50% of their available seats with just siblings alone if they were allowed to do so; however, only 25% of seats are reserved for siblings after which families must still participate in the general lottery.
There are two ways to attend Pin Oak Middle School—a “Boundary Option” and Language magnet; both programs require participating in the lottery. Families residing in the neighborhoods served by Jane Long Academy, Meyerland Middle School, or Pershing Middle School may apply to the Boundary Option program. For the 2023-2024 school year, approximately 850 Boundary Option students applied for 225 seats for about a 25% chance of admission. Families who are eligible for the Boundary Option can and should also apply to the Language magnet to essentially double their chances of acceptance. No students are zoned to Pin Oak for automatic admission.
Middle School is when fine arts magnets start hosting auditions. For students applying for the 2023-2024 school year, only 9% of 6th grade applicants to Pershing, and 6% for Meyerland, were considered “qualified.” That means that nearly all applicants—91% and 94%, respectively—were not considered “qualified” by the judges of their auditions.
The data that General Academic received from HISD showed that Meyerland Middle School had 1,610 open seats for 6th grade this past cycle, which is misleading. The official count takes into account a theoretical maximum number of available seats for each of 11 arts disciplines and doubles them since students must apply to two disciplines. Therefore, the actual number of available seats is over 22x less than the official number shown, which explains why only 6% (67) of applications were considered “qualified.”
Houston Families Want Alternatives for Middle School
According to TEA enrollment data for both 2021-2022 and 2022-2023, HISD lost about 24% 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.
Instead of sending their children to HISD middle schools, parents increasingly opt for one of two options:
- Private schools
- Charter schools
Publicly funded charter schools in Houston have been particularly appealing to families unable or unwilling to pay for private schools, and these schools are expanding rapidly. According to the Texas Education Agency, enrollment in charter schools across the state has nearly tripled over the last years, to the point where 7% of all Texas public school students in are enrolled in charter schools, which disproportionately serve economically disadvantaged students.
This influx is especially relevant to charter middle schools, which have consistently shown the highest level of enrollment, more than both elementary and high schools. For parents of students entering middle school, the specialized programs, unique cultures, and perceived opportunities for success of charter schools serve as a significant pull factor away from HISD middle schools.
Meanwhile, many affluent families who were previously happy with their neighborhood, elementary schools are not enthusiastic about attending much larger middle schools and often consider making the switch to private schools at 6th grade.
The middle school years are a critical, transitional period in a student’s academic journey; in HISD the percentage of students considered at-risk increases from 62% at elementary to 67% at middle school. Charter and private schools siphon off a significant portion of potential HISD middle school enrollees, thereby disproportionately affecting the district’s neighborhood, middle school population and the funding that comes with them.
Top Houston ISD (HISD) Magnet High Schools for 2022-2023
The top three Houston ISD high schools are Carnegie Vanguard, DeBakey, and Bellaire.
For students applying for the 2023-2024 academic year, 5,224 students submitted 14,386 applications for ninth grade to 37 HISD high school programs, which represents a 16% increase versus two years ago. Students applied to an average of 2.8 schools each, which was slightly 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.
Carnegie and DeBakey are HISD’s top high schools by applications, academic results, and national recognition. US News ranks Carnegie #35 and DeBakey #66 nationally. As such, it’s no surprise they’re so popular among Houston families. Both schools are great choices, and qualified students had around a 25% chance of getting into Carnegie or DeBakey.
The academic counterpart to the artistic audition for HISD magnet schools is the “Gifted/Talented” examination. Carnegie Vanguard received 1427 applicants, but only 71% of those students were qualified, meaning that 29% of them lacked the gifted and talented designation. All 100% of Carnegie’s 9th grade seats were available to lottery students as there is no zoned, neighborhood population. Just 24% of qualified applicants received an offer of admission, and, historically nearly all of these offers were happily accepted.
The average composite SAT score among Carnegie Vanguard students in 2022 was 1,375, which easily places the average Carnegie student in the top 10% of students nationally and on par with elite private schools like Kinkaid. With an average composite score of 1,280, students at DeBakey place in the top 15% on average. Nearly every HISD junior is required to take the SAT in-class in the spring.
As Houston’s premier magnet school for the arts, Kinder High School for the Performing and Visual Arts (HSPVA) deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Carnegie and DeBakey. Its lower rank among the top schools is the result of imprecise data from HISD (see below) and its more limited appeal to truly extraordinarily talented students. By SAT scores, HSPVA is third only behind DeBakey.
Early College Schools Remain Popular
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.
Popular schools like Challenge, East, and North Early College High Schools stand out for their high STAAR math scores but aren’t quite delivering when it comes to SAT scores, which remain below large schools like Bellaire and Lamar.
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%.
Dataset for all Houston ISD Magnet Schools