Magnet Schools

By Tawny Maya McCray

May 20, 2013 6 min read

Magnet schools offer an unusual approach to learning compared with traditional public schools. Many have a specific focus, such as science or arts. But when it comes to elementary school kids, is it harmful to focus a child's education at such an early age?

In the Burlington School District in Vermont, the transformation of two of its six elementary schools into magnet schools has made a drastic change in the district.

"These two schools were in a poor neighborhood, and they were failing on every measure that you could think of -- academic, social and emotional," says Victor Prussack, coordinator of magnet schools for the district. "They were at the bottom of all the schools in Burlington."

The schools -- Integrated Arts Academy and Sustainability Academy, currently in their fourth year as magnet schools -- are now highly successful, and Prussack says they have helped bring about a change in the whole educational structure in the district.

"We're seeing huge increases in test scores and attendance rates," he says.

Prussack says the magnet schools were intended to draw people from throughout the city to help lift up the two schools.

By definition, magnet schools are public schools with specialized courses or curricula. "Magnet" refers to how the schools draw students from across the normal boundaries defined by authorities -- usually school boards -- as school zones that feed into certain schools.

There are magnet schools at the elementary, middle and high school levels.

Prussack says the two magnet schools in Burlington are not training kids in a specific focus; the schools were designed as a way to approach teaching and learning.

"We're not training artists, farmers or environmentalists," he says. "That's not the goal of what we're doing. We're trying to educate kids with really good critical thinking skills who will be successful in life. And we're doing that through the lens of sustainability and arts integration."

He says 30 percent of the kids who go to the two schools would not traditionally go to either of these schools because "they're nowhere near their neighborhood."

Prussack says the district is simply providing a choice in education options for parents and students. He says that if parents are given real choices, they can pick the schools they feel would be the most effective for their kids.

He says the district is currently considering creating a third magnet school focused on science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.

Prussack says traditional public schools often get a bad rap, and he feels it's warranted.

"The whole idea that we're going to educate these kids on every level with equal success regardless of what academic part of the curriculum we're talking about is ridiculous because we're not," he says. "As long as you're giving kids that really solid education in literacy, numeracy, inquiry-based skills, social skills, the kids will be successful."

He says magnet schools are given license to try things a little differently and for educators to think outside the box.

Prussack admits there are some drawbacks to magnet schools, however.

"Just by design, if you're attracting people in, there's always the question, 'Well, are you displacing anybody?'" he says.

Magnet schools usually have some sort of admission criteria, he says, which can result in serving the more elite, in-the-know crowds, and those from lesser means end up at whatever school is left.

Vicki Grenz, spokeswoman for the California Charter Schools Association, says her colleagues agree that magnet schools tend to be exclusionary.

"Magnets have restrictions that limit who can attend and specify what criteria are required for selection," she says.

Prussack says another criticism of magnet schools is that if young children's education is too focused, they will be lacking in other areas. For example, if they focus too much on literature, they won't understand science, or if they have too much science focus, then they're going to lose all sense of humanity.

"We're just trying to teach kids how to learn at this stage," he says. "Magnet schools tend to bring students a much deeper level of engagement and excitement."

According to an article from EducationBug, opponents of magnet schools are concerned that they can be selective; they draw money, good teachers and other resources away from mainstream public schools where they are badly needed; and they often don't include low-income, ESL or special-needs students.

Prussack says it's important that districts do a serious job at outreach to make sure families are aware of all school options.

He says that in Burlington, at least half the population of the children in the two magnet schools consists of low-income kids who live in those neighborhoods. Some of the other families in the neighborhood don't want their kids to go to those schools, so they're choosing to send them to the other, non-magnet elementary schools.

He says that for parents, choosing the right school really comes down to knowing your kids and looking into all your options.

"Just because it's a magnet school doesn't mean it's better," he says. "It just means providing a different approach -- and it's not for all kids."

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