CARY — Magnet schools do a lot of good things for Wake County, but academically outperforming nonmagnet schools isn't one of them.
Preliminary data from a new school district report released this week shows that magnet schools are performing the same as or slightly worse than Wake's nonmagnet schools. The findings came out during a two-day planning meeting by the school board to discuss the future of the 25-year-old magnet program.
"We have a world-class magnet program," said Patti Head, chairwoman of the school board. "But we need to do a comprehensive review of how they're performing."
The findings are coming out at a time when parents can apply for magnet schools. The application period ends today.
Critics point to the findings to question the continued spending on magnet schools. Wake spends at least $11 million a year on magnet schools, mostly for extra teachers. This doesn't include transportation costs or the renovations that were part of a school construction bond issue in November.
"The magnet schools should be way outperforming other schools," said Fran DeLuca, director of the state chapter of Americans for Prosperity, which opposed the bond issue. "It's a waste of money."
But supporters say the magnet schools, most of which are in high-poverty areas, would be much worse off if they didn't have the magnet programs to lure in affluent students to fill them. They also say having empty magnet seats would increase overcrowding at a time of record growth.
"It costs money to run the program," said school board member Susan Parry. "But it's going to cost a lot more when you totally lose a school."
Magnet schools were started in 1982 to fill and integrate the largely empty schools in downtown Raleigh and Southeast Raleigh. If not for the magnet program, school officials say those schools would have a mostly poor and minority population.
The magnet program has expanded into other areas since then. Wake's magnet school program has received national awards and frequently draws visitors from other school systems.
The draw at the 35 magnet schools is the different programs they offer. For instance, parents of elementary school students who want their children to take foreign languages, Montessori classes or advanced performing arts classes must send them to a magnet school.
"Anytime you can offer options to parents and students, that's going to be a benefit to them," said Sally Reynolds, principal of Poe Elementary, a magnet school near downtown Raleigh.
Robin Oke said magnet schools have exposed her children to different experiences than they would have had if they had stayed in Apex. They travel 18 miles to Poe Elementary and Moore Square Middle, a magnet school in downtown Raleigh.
"They get to see a different side of life," Oke said. "They're able to see what it would be like to live in a lower-income area."
Although some magnet schools are among the top performers in the school district, many are not.
Stephen Mares, principal of Daniels Middle, a magnet school near downtown Raleigh, tells parents to look beyond test scores.
"We meet the needs of all our kids," Mares said. "They get opportunities they might not have at their traditional school. They're being enriched."
But Glenn Astolfi, chairman of the school board District 8 advisory council, said the findings suggest that money might be better spent on the nonmagnet schools and building more new schools.
"Why don't they spread it across the county rather than spend it on a few buildings?" Astolfi said. "We don't have those programs in Apex or Wakefield. Wouldn't it be better to spend the money there?"
Staff writer T. Keung Hui can be reached at 829-4534 or email@example.com.