When Superintendent Stuart Berger helped open Sudbrook Magnet Middle School this month, he told the students that "what Sudbrook is, is different. It is not that it is better."
With four specialized curricula, a longer school day, student uniforms and voice mail for teachers, Sudbrook is definitely different from most schools in Baltimore County.
But all of the county's 15 magnet programs are different. They teach high finance in Lansdowne, Japanese in Pikesville, dance in Towson, advanced math in Parkville and the science of fitness in Essex. They tap into the latest technology and teaching techniques that often are unavailable elsewhere.
There is also a feeling that the burgeoning magnet programs -- one of the most visible signs of educational change in the county -- are indeed better.
Asked why she chose the Carver Center for Arts and Technology Towson, freshman Billie Laws said, "I didn't want to go to a public school."
Some critics and even supporters are worried the magnet schools have benefited at the expense of neighborhood schools. Among the questions they raise:
* Will magnet schools create a two-tier educational system, fostering elitism in the magnets and depriving the rest of Baltimore County's 100,000 students? Or will they inspire neighborhood schools to become more innovative and in tune with their students?
* Will the magnets siphon all the good students -- and many good teachers -- from neighborhood schools? Or will they rejuvenate the interest of students who might otherwise languish in classrooms?
Whatever the answers, about 6,000 elementary, middle and high school students have enrolled in magnet programs. And the magnet mania continues. Last year there were seven magnet schools. This year there are 15, and next year there will be at least 22.
Magnet schools get their name because they focus on a particular subject or approach to learning. They draw students with common interests from a wide area, sometimes the whole county. For example, Carver's 650 students come from every middle school in the county to study visual, performing or literary arts, said principal Mary Cary.
Magnet schools aren't new. Not even to Baltimore County.
The county's former technical centers have been providing half-day technical training for students from a variety of "home" high schools for years. Eastern Technical High School, the county's first comprehensive magnet, has been drawing students from Essex and the northeast for 24 years.
But the magnets that have opened in the last 14 months greatly expand these programs. They mirror what's been happening in other districts -- including neighboring Baltimore City -- for more than 20 years.
A strong proponent of magnets, Dr. Berger said they put choice into the public school system.
They traditionally have been a tool of voluntary desegregation, usually to draw white students into predominantly black schools without politically or racially divisive boundary changes.
Way to create seats
In Baltimore County, magnets are also an economical way to get more seats in a hurry to handle a growing enrollment. By turning the underused Carver and Western School of Technology into comprehensive magnet high schools, the system created 1,500 slots for less than $5 million in capital expenditures. Building a high school for 1,500 would cost five times that much, said county magnet coordinator Anita Stockton.
Likewise, by reopening Sudbrook and Cromwell Valley Elementary, both of which were closed in the 1980s, the school system reclaimed another 1,500 seats. By designating those schools as magnets, school officials avoided heated boundary battles.
No matter what the motivation, interest has been keen. In fact, the county's response when too many students applied to Cromwell and Sudbrook sparked fiery debates with racial overtones. The uproar even forced school officials to promise additional magnets to appease parents of students who were left out.
"Magnets have just caught on in this county. I think it's going to keep going beyond what I thought," said Dr. Berger. "I'm thrilled with it."
School board president Paul Cunningham recalled board members talking with Dr. Berger shortly after he was hired in 1992. "We said we didn't know a whole lot about magnets. You will have to do a sell job," he said they told the superintendent.
Soon magnet proposals were rolling in. "It must have been a heckuva sell job," Mr. Cunningham said. "An overwhelming number of board members support magnets."
So do magnet students and their parents.
"These are people here who are not sick of teaching," said Carver junior Melissa Frost. "They're very open-minded."
Carver freshman Jamie Welebob is "surprised with all the freedom. It really amazes me that you can eat and drink in class."
Junior David McShea likes the openness, too, and the opportunity to get more experience in theater -- the main reason he moved to Carver from Parkville.