Pondering the attraction of magnets

October 21, 1994|By Stephen H. Sirkin

TRUTH IN packaging requires that I immediately make these disclosures:

* I have a daughter who enthusiastically entered the visual arts program at Sudbrook Magnet Middle School this fall.

* I teach at Old Court Middle

School, a neighborhood school that competes with Sudbrook for students.

* Given the right circumstances, I would love to teach at a magnet school.

As you can see, generally I favor magnet schools. However, even a magnet school proponent like me sees the down side to the concept. Chief among them are:

* Magnet schools, which are designed to facilitate voluntary racial integration, generally attract the brightest students and the "best" teachers, or at least the ones who play by the rules, from the neighborhood schools. But what happens when the high achievers leave the neighborhood schools? Do the students and teachers still there feel left behind?

* Neighborhood schools are left with a challenge to improve, but they generally don't have the money, resources and personnel of the magnet schools. However, some argue that the proliferation of magnet schools puts pressure on the neighborhood schools to improve, and that may have at least a temporary beneficial impact.

* While magnet schools are usually flush with federal money in the first

years of operation, once "goals" are met, that money usually ends. In some communities, when the federal money for magnet schools has dried up, major upheavals have occurred in the schools. Some have experienced staff cuts and reductions in resources, undercutting the programs that originally made the schools attractive to students.

This issue is ripe for discussion since Baltimore County has a bumper crop of magnet schools: Last year there were seven; this year there are 15, and next year there are to be at least 22.

At a recent open house at my daughter's magnet school, I was immediately struck by the contrast between her school and mine. The freshly retooled building was filled with enthusiastic // faculty and parents turned out en masse. The students are committed to the program. The school has equipment that is equal to or exceeds that of my own school.

That experience reinforced my belief that it's easier to achieve success at magnet schools. But I'm still left pondering the long-term consequences.

Magnet schools are springing up at a fast clip for a number of reasons, besides their general purpose of promoting a diverse student population. Parents of all races and ethnic groups seeking "the best" for their children are enticed by the scholastically creative programs. Also, magnets offer programs that are not economically viable in every school, but can be cost effective at one or two central locations. Many of these programs have an emphasis on such areas as technology, performing arts, visual arts, languages, computers, engineering, etc.

As soon as such schools are proposed, expectations begin to climb. There is an application process (even for teachers!), and students are "selected" for the programs. In addition to the influx of federal money, there usually are varying amounts of extra support from local sources -- money not available through the normal budget process.

Of course the design and implementation of such programs involve a great deal of work, and not every magnet location is as attractive as another.

But what happens to the neighborhood schools? Spurred on by competition from magnet schools, many neighborhood schools are experimenting with innovative concepts. The jury is out as to how, or if, these will stem the movement of their students to magnets. If they fail, there is a real danger that many of these buildings will become holding facilities for the unmotivated, where new teachers come to gain experience before moving off to the magnets or "desirable" schools.

Neighborhood schools also may be seen as the place for those who don't make it at magnet schools. For example, magnet school students who lose interest or present behavior problems may be sent back to neighborhood schools. If a child was not motivated by a magnet, you have to wonder what is in the grab bag of educational tools that will inspire him or her in a community school.

Personally, I have come to the conclusion that magnet schools are basically "public private" schools. They possess most of the attributes of private schools without the tuition, but not without extra costs.

We have spent $91 to cover shirts that meet the dress code for our daughter's school, not to mention the expense of the pants or dresses in the school's official colors.

She is prepared to joyfully spend an extra half hour a day on the bus and stay at school an hour longer. A new and very innovative program has her excited. Meanwhile, I am getting all the prestige and advantages of a private school without the bother of the tuition.

Stephen H. Sirkin writes from Reisterstown.

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