As a mom of two 20-somethings, and with a third child still in elementary school, I thought I was pretty savvy about educational options within the public school system.
What I didn’t realize is that the public school system is like a kaleidoscope that can look different with each twist of the wrist. With charter schools and magnet programs, the education landscape in a given district can contain a wide range of options for students.
Magnet programs are federally funded school programs that are focused on a theme, such as Science, Math, Engineering and Technology (STEM), performing arts, language immersion, or International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula.
These programs emerged from the Open Schools Movement of the 1970s, and were the most successful of any of the desegregation efforts in education. Magnet programs sought to attract white students to schools or neighborhoods that were predominantly black by offering a specialized educational opportunity. The aim was to create schools that were socially, economically, and geographically diverse.
Today, magnet programs still offer their specialized instruction to a small subset of students within a larger public school of an underserved community. As a result, a magnet program’s student body differs from that of the larger school that houses it, and is usually about 50 percent white. There are also entire magnet schools where everyone receives specialized instruction, as opposed to a subset of students, but these institutions are less common.
While the mission of desegregation remains an important goal, in the last decade, these schools have positioned themselves more broadly within the school choice movement. Like charter schools, magnet programs are publicly funded alternatives whose goal is to improve educational engagement and achievement for public school students. Christine Rossell, a professor at Boston University, explained in her analysis of magnet schools that these programs make the argument that allowing families to choose their schools will ignite passion in students and lead to better educational outcomes.
Funding for magnet schools was included in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 because of the model’s success in creating diversity at schools and raising achievement for underserved students.
Admissions criteria in magnet programs vary by school. Some programs require auditions, interviews, or entrance exams, while others use a lottery system to assign spots. Certain magnet programs set aside seats for students from specific demographic groups or districts as well.
Most programs are designed for a particular age group: elementary, middle, or high school. Once a student completes the program, she must either return to her home school or complete an application for a new magnet program at the next level.
Language immersion programs are an exception, and give the student the right to participate in the program from kindergarten through 12th grade.
Currently, there are more than 4,000 magnet programs in the U.S., with over 1.5 million children enrolled.
Magnet schools have increasingly garnered support from both the government and education specialists. Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation, Richard D. Kahlenberg, explained to The New York Times that racial and economic segregation is one of the biggest obstacles when it comes to student achievement. Magnet schools, he says, operate to give kids stuck in bad schools better options.
Historically, teachers in these programs were provided with specialized training and had increased retention rates. Student attendance and graduation figures improved. Diverse learners were re-engaged by the depth of the subject matter and the different methodologies used to educate them. Students, teachers, and parents who participated in magnet programs were more engaged in the educational community of their new schools.
Researchers find that magnet schools have the results to back up the outspoken support of educational experts. Casey Cobb, an associate professor of education policy at the University of Connecticut led a team as they studied magnet school students in Hartford, New Haven, and Waterbury, CT. The researchers found that, compared to students in non-magnet city schools, those attending magnet programs had lower dropout rates, less absenteeism, and higher scores on state tests.
Additionally, Cobb and his team reported that by 12th grade, students of color in magnet programs felt closer to their white classmates, and white students reported feeling closer to students of color as well.
In Professor Rossell’s analysis of magnet schools, she explains the importance of magnet schools within the school choice movement: “Parents like school choice. Although undoubtedly there are some who enroll their children in a theme-based school in order to enable them to pursue a passion, most parents are probably interested in theme-based education as a means of igniting a passion."
By allowing students to pursue what motivates them, and by increasing diversity in underserved schools, magnet programs benefit individual participants as well as entire communities.
If a student is interested in a magnet program, the entire family will need to make some decisions. First, there are the efforts required to apply to a program, including possible exams, essays, teacher recommendations, and application forms.
If a student is accepted into a magnet program, participating often comes with its own challenges: a longer commute, complex transportation plans, and social and extracurricular activities farther away from home than the neighborhood school’s.
Still, there are pros and cons to each of our educational choices. It takes more effort to participate in magnet programs, but the academic, social, and emotional benefits can be deep and enduring.
For my family, the gains were worth the sacrifices. My children became bilingual, which added an important dimension to their educational experience. The friendships they built across the county gave them a richer social experience. Those bonds — and the added confidence they gained from mastering Spanish — enabled them to take other risks as they moved forward on their educational pathways. In our case, the magnet options have continued to provide benefits long after my children moved on from their programs.