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Magnet schools on the rise

November 24, 2003|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

Arts, technology, math and science are taught widely in schools across the country, but a growing trend toward funneling students into a school focused on one of those subjects has some Tri-State school officials lining up behind the rest, while others are keeping their distance.

In the United States there are more than 4,000 magnet schools, or schools that attract students under programs that emphasize such subjects as art or science, said Robert Brooks, the national director for Magnet Schools of America, a national nonprofit educational association.

He said many school systems that have chosen to create magnet schools had high minority and poverty populations that decided their students could benefit from having a more diverse student body. Their theory, and one held by Washington county school officials, is that by offering parents a choice of where to send their children, more students will be drawn to the school and it, in turn, will be given a new focus that encourages high student achievement, Brooks said.

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"A lot of schools looked to magnet schools to turn their schools around. They were addressing schools that no one wanted to go to," he said.

Frank Aliveto, assistant superintendent for Berkeley County Schools, does not plan on following their lead.

He said since West Virginia dictates school curriculum, class offerings across schools and state school systems are the same.

"I think what we're trying to provide is a balanced education that's equal in all schools," he said.

Aliveto said if the school system has high expectations of all its students, it won't need to offer unique programs to bolster student achievement.

"We're not having those problems at this time," he said.

But with the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Brooks said school districts across the country have started to look to magnet schools to raise student test scores.

The federal act is designed to close the achievement gap between schools and make sure all students, including disadvantaged groups, are academically proficient.

Washington County Public Schools officials are seeing how the school system's Hagerstown magnet programs, Fountaindale School for Arts and Academic Excellence, in its second year, and Emma K. Doub School for Integrated Arts and Technology, in its first year, affect the performance of students enrolled in them.

Fountaindale students' test scores are higher since the school started under its visual and performing arts magnet, said Roger Giles, the school system's director of funded and special programs.

Initially the north Hagerstown magnet school was created to solve a potential redistricting problem with crowding in the elementary schools surrounding it, he said. Students coming from those surrounding schools were given first dibs on seats in the gifted and talented magnet program, which created more of a voluntary redistricting, he said.

The school system solved a different enrollment problem by creating the Emma K. Doub magnet school this year, which, aside from applicants to its technology and arts magnet school, takes students from Funkstown and the former Emma K. Doub elementary schools. Prior to those schools' integration, each had unfilled rosters in some classes, but now the combined school's students are more evenly spread throughout the two buildings, Giles said. Funkstown serves students in pre-kindergarten through first grade under its new name, Funkstown School for Early Childhood Education.

Bill Rheinhard, spokesman for the Maryland State Department of Education, said when Prince George's County started its first magnet school, it was created "in part, to promote integration."

Giles said that was a positive side effect of creating the magnet schools in the county. He said different cultures are being represented at the schools that may not have been there before.

Seventy-four students are enrolled in Fountaindale's visual and performing arts magnet, while 80 students are enrolled in Emma K. Doub's technology and arts magnet, he said. Both elementary school magnet programs serve second- through fifth-grade students in gifted and talented classes.

Rheinhard said the State Department doesn't track the state's magnet schools, but he said Baltimore County, Baltimore City and Howard County have them, and Anne Arundel County is looking into developing one.

"It (a magnet school) really is whatever the local community says it is," he said. "It has to be district wide."

That's why Jack Appleby, director of secondary education for Greencastle-Antrim (Pa.) School District, said his school system won't look into creating one.

He said magnet schools may work in Maryland since its school districts are divided by counties, but in Pennsylvania, which has 501 districts to Maryland's 24, it's not as feasible to give students the choice to attend a school outside their assigned district.

"If I took a student from another school district, then I'd have tuition issues," he said.

The closest Greencastle comes to having a magnet school is The Franklin County Career and Technology Center, which pulls students studying vocations from districts within the county, he said.

Giles said right now no solid plans for more magnet schools are in the works, but he said if the school system creates another magnet program, it likely will focus on math and science.

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