Magnet Schools began to be widely implemented in the mid-1970’s as a political tool. At the time, public schools were trying to desegregate to comply with a Supreme Court ruling, but found parents resistant to sending children outside their normal school zone. Educators realized that if they created superior, specialized schools, students would volunteer to go out of zone for a better education in their field of interest.
Magnet schools are open to any child within the school district, though not all school districts offer magnet programs. Parents have to apply, and children are chosen based on criteria set by the school. Up until 2007, race was usually a component in the selection criteria, however, in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed their decision on mandatory desegregation, so in most cases, race is no longer a consideration.
Magnet schools get the same amount of district funding as regular schools, and also qualify for special federal funding, as well. On average, magnet schools spend about $200 more per student. Performance wise, students tend to do better academically in magnets than their counterparts in regular schools, with higher graduation rates.
Each magnet school has a particular focus, usually thematic, but sometimes instructional. Examples of a thematic focus include humanities, science, math, performing arts, foreign language, and athletics. An example of an instructional theme is Montessori. Outside the specialty field, magnet schools follow the same curriculum as the rest of the district, but have a more advanced curriculum within the area of specialty. For example, Ms. Buckmaster teaches at a performing arts magnet elementary school. Every child at their school studies visual arts, music, and dance. Violin and piano lessons are also offered as an extra option. I personally went to a humanities magnet high school, and instead of regular history and English, we had college level English and history, plus philosophy and art history, as well.
If your child particularly enjoys/excels in a certain subject, you may want to consider a magnet school (assuming you live in district that offers them). Chances are your child will enjoy school more if (s)he gets to focus on the subjects (s)he enjoys. Likewise, the more advanced material will keep him/her from getting bored in subjects that come naturally for him/her.
If your child doesn’t seem to be responding well to the instructional style at the local school, you may want to check to see if there are magnet programs available that offer a teaching style that is more effective for your child. Charter schools also offer alternative teaching styles, which we will discuss further in the next installment of this series.
There are downsides to magnets, though. It is rare that you get lucky enough that the magnet school your child would enjoy is in your neighborhood. More often than not, it is a long commute, which, as we discussed last week, can be problematic for several reasons. Ms. Buckmaster’s school is open to all students in Guilford County, NC, which is 650 miles big! In high school, I had friends who had a 2 hour commute each way. They couldn’t participate in after school activities and I almost never saw them outside of school.
Some argue that the importance of a “local community” is offset by the belief that, while kids may not be making friends in their own neighborhoods, magnet students will in theory have more friends at school. After all, they are surrounded by students with similar interests. For example, a science obsessed child may be viewed as a “nerd” at the local school, but he may be seen as “cool” in a science magnet.
Sometimes the physical locations of magnet schools are in “less than ideal” neighborhoods. Magnet programs tend to be placed inside existing facilities with low enrollment numbers, wherever that may be. My magnet school shared a campus with a regular high school in a community where gang violence was a problem. But since I wasn’t into the gang scene and knew to stay clear of people who were, it was never a problem I, nor any of my magnet friends, faced.
Finally, just because you apply for a magnet, does not mean your child will be accepted. Most schools get more applications than seats available, and sometimes schools turn away as many as 90% of applicants. Critics complain that magnets tend to only take the best and brightest, instead of the students that would benefit most from the specialized education. For example, a student who is artistically gifted but not interested in academics would probably flourish in a visual arts magnet, but if his grades in academics aren’t good, may not be accepted. These critics argue that rather than focusing on a few “super” schools with extra funding, the districts should focus on making all schools better. Some even purport that all schools should be turned into magnets so that every child can go to a school that they find especially interesting.