Magnet school attraction

January 18, 1993

Metropolitan subdivisions can live or die by how well or poorly they educate their younger citizens. For evidence, see Baltimore City, where the sad state of public schooling is mentioned as a key cause of the suburban flight that hasn't abated.

As Baltimore County becomes more urbanized, many residents fear the jurisdiction could soon have social ills similar to the city's, and on a similar scale. Among the problems often cited is what some critics regard as a school system in decline.

Small wonder van loads of countians have made their escape to neighboring jurisdictions, just as city dwellers fled to the county decades ago. That's why the county school system's decision to launch an intensive magnet school program is an excellent idea that couldn't have come a moment too soon.

This September, seven high schools countywide will begin offering specialized instruction in areas such as the literary and performing arts, environmental sciences, industrial technology and health sciences. An accelerated International Baccalaureate program, a stringent course of study in which students take exams to gain advanced college placement, will be available at two schools.

In theory, magnet schools enable students to get on learning tracks that go beyond the usual academic fare. Then, with better public schools to choose from, fewer county families would opt to leave. The schools could even attract middle-class families to the county. And the magnets should help the system achieve much-needed racial balance more smoothly than forced integration would.

Two questions, though. Will non-magnet schools suffer if the magnets draw most of the attention and the resources? School officials claim the non-magnets will be forced to improve to keep good students. That's the ideal scenario. The worst case -- to be fervently guarded against -- is the slow decay at those schools for a lack of caring.

Also, will the Baccalaureate program make the traditional Gifted and Talented program seem second-rate? The former is said to be much more difficult, so some GT students might not be up to it. Still, school officials might have to face a lot of angry parents demanding the best -- the Baccalaureate program -- for their little geniuses.

Not that those officials would really mind. As School Superintendent Stuart Berger predicts, "I guarantee you, in three years, people will be standing in line to get into these schools."

It sure would beat seeing people lining up to leave Baltimore County.

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