Monday, February 18, 2013

How are magnet schools possible?

Some proponents of our school district’s new diversity policy have emphasized the possibility of meeting the policy’s goal—to reduce the concentration in any one school of kids from low-income families—through the creation of magnet schools that would draw families voluntarily from many different parts of town.

I’ve got nothing against the idea of magnet schools; it would be great if the district could make progress toward its diversity goals through voluntary transfers. But I don’t really understand them, either. How exactly would, say, a “science and technology” magnet school differ from our current elementary schools?

Keep in mind that the district has so much instruction stuffed into its current school day, and finds all of it so indispensable, that it has shortened recess and squeezed its lunch periods down to fifteen minutes. And that the superintendent explained to me that the district can’t add even five more minutes to the lunch period because “it’s very difficult to both meet the minimal instructional minutes and get all the [state-mandated] Common Core content delivered in the classroom.” And that the assistant superintendent also explained that “we as public schools are charged with far more than providing core academic instruction. For example, we teach a bullying/harassement curriculum, a health foods curriculum (in several schools with grant money) and financial literacy.” And that the teachers’ union president recently told the school board that the district’s overstuffed elementary school day is short-changing the kids and causing morale problems among the teachers.

What parts of the current school day will suddenly become expendable to create a greater emphasis on science and technology (or whatever the school’s particular theme will be)? Either these magnet schools will be all talk without any real difference, or there is more room for change in the school day than the district admits. Which is it?

(Cross-posted at the Patch).


Cynthia812 said...

The question of magnet schools is an interesting one. I went to public school in Little Rock, AR from '86-'99. I went to a full magnet for JH and a school with magnet programs for HS. PROS: 1)I was able to attend a school with students who cared more. 2) The JH was an arts/science magnet, and was the only JH in the district with orchestra and dance programs, among others. That's a pro and a con, but at least they were offered somewhere. 3) The concentration of good students allowed for a really good school with fantastic (and at the HS, very old-school) teachers, who could actually do their jobs. CONS: 1) Insane busing. Although Little Rock has suffered under numerous desegregation court orders and white flight that has made busing a fact of life, anyway. 2) Detrimental effects on non-magnet schools of having their best students pulled away. Some of those schools are pretty much just holding pens. To answer the question I think you were asking in your post, I can't speak for elementary, but at the upper levels, being a "magnet" school did not involve a horribly increased workload. It just changed the type of classes that were offered, and often the caliber of the teachers willing to work there. My HS was an interesting case because it had magnet students and zoned students there. Anyone could take any classes, so having the high level students there actually increased opportunities for everyone. But it was kind of an unusual case, I think. And I think that in the last fifteen years, the idea that advanced classes require an insane workload has taken hold. I will say I had HS classes much more difficult than most I took in college, even in the same subjects. But the focus was on learning the stuff, not so much on grades. To sum up, I am very grateful for the magnet program we had, because otherwise I would have had to go to a much inferior school, or leave the public school system. But there are inherent fairness issues that are hard to resolve.

Anonymous said...

I think the answer to that issue is to lengthen the school day. The Thursday early out day is also ridiculous. Have school go to 3:30 pm every day. Helps low income parents as they don't need as much after school day care. Why not?

Chris said...

Anonymous -- Thanks for commenting! I’m not in favor of extending the school day, primarily because I think kids spend enough time in school already and need some time when they’re not being constantly supervised and told what to do. I disagree with the district’s opinion that we can’t possibly spare even five more minutes for lunch within our current day. But I wouldn’t be against the district offering a magnet school that runs on a different daily schedule or yearly calendar, if that’s an option that appeals to some people.

My concern is that the district will “incentivize” magnet schools by offering program changes—like a decent lunch period, or a more engaging curriculum—that should be standard in all the schools.

More thoughts on extending the school day here.

(Comment cross-posted from my response to another comment on the Patch article.)