Magnetic Attraction: Realizing Student Potential Through Specialized Curricula

Nationwide, hundreds of elementary and secondary schools are "accredited with warning" or face serious budgetary concerns, much to the chagrin of teachers, students and parents alike. Parents hoping to move their students out of these failing districts or schools to more successful institutions may face an uphill battle. Conventionally, "school choice" can be a dirty phrase, signaling to some a total lack of faith in the public school system. However, as more parents embrace school choice and varying models and methods of non-traditional education, many school districts have chosen to reap the whirlwind and offer alternatives to the neighborhood school. Some of the most ubiquitous alternatives sweeping the nation are charter schools, magnet schools, homeschooling, and open enrollment programs, but are these options better or just different?

What Are Magnet Schools?

Quietly working to close the achievement gap in America, magnet schools offer competitive education without regard to real estate. Magnet schools originated in the 1970s in hope of promoting voluntary desegregation. These schools were founded on the principle of academic achievement for all and developed specialized programs and focuses in order to attract a wide variety of students. Today, magnets are public schools that still offer specialized curricula running the gamut from music and the arts to STEM, language immersion, and gifted and talented programs. 'Magnet' schools open their enrollment across district boundaries, and emphasize welcoming students from all backgrounds, boosting minority graduation rates and finding more first-generation college students a place in the university of their choice.

These mission driven institutions create a common goal and bond between students and educators which creates common goal shared by students and educators and boosts personal and academic accountability and success. Rodeeia Carson attended the prestigious Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, a magnet school and the top-rated school in Pennsylvania, "Masterman is more than a place where students are achieving academically. It is a place that shapes excellence in every arena of your life. Everyone knows you and they are willing to go the extra mile to see you succeed and fulfill your potential. I don't think that should be unique. I think all students deserve [that] experience," she remarked.

Nationwide, magnets enroll 1.5 million students, almost double the enrollment of charter schools and other alternatives to traditional public education, making them the most popular form of school choice in the U.S.

The Chosen Ones

Some schools with competitive admissions processes require high test scores, grade point averages, admission essays, and auditions, while other schools hold a simple lottery and leave admission up to chance. Carson recalled feeling nervous when she applied to Masterman, "I remember having to do an interview and honestly it was a culture shock -- the school was nothing like my neighborhood elementary school. It was much larger and much whiter, I wasn't sure I wanted to go." Carson's exemplary elementary school test scores earned her spots in many area magnet schools, but her mother wouldn't turn down a coveted spot in Masterman's 5th grade class.

A Snapshot Of Magnet Success

Research has shown that schools with competitive admissions experience greater diversity than district schools but are less fully integrated than magnet schools with a lottery program. The most effective method of lessening the achievement gap is school integration. Between 1971 and 1988, the height of bussing in America, the achievement gap was cut in half. Recent studies overwhelmingly support the successes of integration, proving that economic disadvantage significantly depresses student performance. When low-income or minority students are kept in homogenous schools, the achievement gap between them and their white or affluent peers widens. Magnet schools work to break up that uniformity.

These schools consistently enroll more low-income and minority students than any other school. In 2010, according to the U.S Department of Education, 65% of magnet school students were non-white. Magnets also attract a significant amount of affluent families, due to their specialized curricula . These levels of socioeconomic and racial diversity levels the proverbial playing field and provides disadvantaged students with previously unavailable avenues to success.

Natisha Chen, a 24-year-old Registered Nurse in Philadelphia also attended Masterman. Chen's neighborhood high school featured a 93.5% African-American student body with a 57% graduation rate. "There were fights at the school that usually called for police involvement. I've even heard about teachers getting punched in the face." said Chen. When she earned admission to Masterman, her experience shifted dramatically. At Masterman, minorities comprise 57% of the student body and 39% come from economically disadvantaged families; yet the school boasts a 100% graduation rate with all students gaining acceptance to four-year universities if they so choose. Magnet schools typically see higher rates of diversity and graduation than district schools, especially when they offer transportation or offset the cost of public transportation.

But Do The Students Succeed?

Magnet schools show high test scores and graduation rates for their students, specifically when they offer career specialization, vocational training, and internship programs. In comparison with charter schools, research shows that magnet students score higher on standardized tests in both reading and mathematics, with black students at magnets scoring significantly higher than their charter counterparts. Both magnet and charter students score higher than district school students. "You see so many injustices [in the public school system] being committed from a lack of materials and resources to the continued discriminations and assumptions being made about our kids," remarked Rodeeia Carson.

A 2008 study found that Magnet school students demonstrated a 73% graduation rate, while only 45% of students in district public schools completed high school. Magnet students also experience higher levels of parental involvement, are less likely to skip classes or be absent from school, and more likely to have career ambitions.

Many magnet school students become first-generation college students, a group in which minority and low-income students are also disproportionately represented. According to the Pell Institute, first-generation students are less likely to start college directly out of high school than their compatriots and less likely to graduate in a timely manner, if at all. Magnet schools give these first-generation students a much needed leg-up so that future generations can continue to close the achievement gap. Angela Nace, an Arts Administrator and Masterman graduate was the first in her family to attend college, but unlike many other first-generation college students, Nace was ready. "I felt I was more prepared than most freshman in my college graduating class," she confessed. Nace graduated from Temple University with a degree in Art History in 2013 and represents the 37% minority of first-generation college students to graduate in four years.
As Rodeeia Carson looks to her future in education, she pauses to attribute her passion for her current career to her high school alma mater, "After college I realized that my experience was unique, that I was one of the lucky ones," she went on to say, "When I look at the freedoms I was allowed at Masterman, I am saddened that my kids are not afforded the same. All students deserve to be educated in a safe space where they feel welcomed to be their absolute self. When I look into these classrooms, these students remind me of myself. Masterman saved my life by directly changing my trajectory, and everyone should have that opportunity."

Magnet schools are another option for students who have identified their passions and interests in specific areas and open wide the door of access for many ambitious, low-income students while prioritizing much needed diversity.