In the simplest terms, magnet means “something that attracts.” This is indeed the concept behind the nation’s magnet schools. To the students who attend magnet schools and their families, the term takes on a deeper meaning: choice in the search for educational excellence.
Magnets schools offer distinctive opportunities with the convenience and affordability of public schools.
The magnet system was originally designed to counteract the resistance to desegregation stemming from Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Parents left urban areas in droves to avoid having their children bused to schools in other communities. Many who could afford it opted for private schools. Clearly, forced busing was not working. School leaders realized that reversing these trends required innovation. In the late 1960s two alternative schools opened in Tacoma, Washington, and in Boston. In 1970 Minneapolis received federal funding to establish an experimental core of four elementary schools with different themes. By 1975 the term magnet , coined in Houston, was used to describe these types of schools. Today almost every state has a magnet school program in place.
Magnet schools offer distinctive opportunities with the convenience and affordability of public schools. They provide core curriculum classes and specialized programs built around unifying interests or student needs, such as
- gifted and talented
- International Baccalaureate
- fine and performing arts
- international studies
- foreign languages
- business and finance
- justice and law
Students are more likely to commit to succeeding in all subjects when their learning environment more closely matches their learning styles and aptitudes. This commitment translates into greater student satisfaction and improved achievement.
Within communities, magnets provide healthy doses of competition. Often the goals of high achievement and school improvement are more readily attained in systems with magnet programs in place. Magnets tend to benefit from the greater loyalty of staff and students, who have chosen their school’s philosophy as a way to work and learn. Community involvement tends to increase, because area families feel a sense of ownership in the program. Since neighborhood or base schools are charged with closely examining and changing their programs to maintain their enrollments, magnet schools must work that much harder to keep their programs innovative and challenging enough to remain attractive alternatives.
Applying to a magnet school takes some investigation, since there is no uniform admissions process. Some districts use selective criteria, such as auditions, test scores, portfolios, or grade-point averages, and all of them have some method of choosing among applicants and maintaining enrollment. Most systems use either a lottery or a weighted (prioritized) process. The goal is a healthy, diverse student body. Socioeconomic factors are often part of the formula, whereas using race as a factor in maintaining diversity has been limited by court decisions.
When investigating the possibility of attendance at a magnet school for your child, ask the following questions:
- What types of programs meet the needs of my child?
- What schools do I have to choose from?
- What is the application and selection process?
- Is transportation provided?
- What are my options if attending the selected magnet school does not work for my child?
In districts where there are few if any magnet schools, parents may want to investigate how to bring a magnet program to their community. While continuing to serve their original purpose, magnet schools have become so much more. They are worth investigating if you are looking for an excellent alternative in which your gifted student can thrive.
Lisa Thompson is magnet program coordinator at Martin Middle School in Raleigh, North Carolina. Her position includes writing elective curriculum for use in all Wake County magnet middle schools. Lisa has two daughters, both of whom attend magnet schools.