Review could change which schools get magnet programs

khui@newsobserver.comMay 30, 2012 

— The Wake County school board is taking a hard look at the future of its magnet school program, a review that could result in granting some schools these coveted programs and other schools losing them.

For 30 years, the magnet school program has filled and integrated inner-city Raleigh schools by offering unique programs to lure applicants from the suburbs. But after seeing data showing wider academic achievement gaps at many magnet schools than at non-magnet schools, Superintendent Tony Tata and a bi-partisan group of school board members said Wednesday that it’s time to make student achievement one of the guiding principles of the magnet program.

If adopted, this change could mean that some lower-performing, higher-poverty schools will get the board’s approval in August to become magnet schools. It could also mean that some magnet schools that aren’t showing academic gains, especially for their low-income and minority students, could see their programs overhauled or even eliminated.

“If we’re going to get serious about closing the gaps and getting rid of a ‘school within a school,’ we have to have achievement as a principle,” said school board vice chairman Keith Sutton, whose Southeast Raleigh district is the home for a number of magnet schools.

Critics of the program have said that high-end programs at schools such as Enloe High benefit magnet students more than non-magnet students there.

Fellow Democratic school board member Christine Kushner cautioned against being too negative about the gaps at magnet schools, noting that they on average have more low-income and minority students than non-magnet schools. She said people should consider what academics at the magnets would be like if they lacked these programs and attracted only nearby students.

“I do think we need to talk about achievement across the system,” said Kushner. “But I think we have to stay focused on the overall goals of the magnet program – reducing concentrations of poverty and preventing racial isolation. I think this is a goal that Wake County embraces.”

The current magnet school program began in 1982, primarily to integrate schools inside the Raleigh Beltline that were under-enrolled and likely to become racially isolated. The magnet schools started offering programs such as additional foreign languages, performing and visual arts courses and hundreds of electives to entice suburban students.

The magnet school program is now in 33 schools. Tata ordered his staff to begin a review that will result in the school board determining who gets magnet programs and who would lose them. Changes wouldn’t go into effect until the 2013-14 school year.

“We need to look at what is the purpose and scope of the program,” said Republican school board member Debra Goldman. “Are there places where we need to add magnets? In the 2000s, do we want to have the same goals for the magnets that we wanted back in the ’70s?”

At Sutton’s request, school staff compiled data on student achievement at magnet schools. The data presented Wednesday indicated that at elementary schools and middle schools, the gap between the performance of low-income students and other students was wider at magnet schools than non-magnet schools.

Sutton said they needed to determine if the perception was correct that minority and low-income students would see an increase in achievement at magnet schools.

“I think it’s important to determine which magnet school programs are achieving what we’re desiring,” said Republican board member John Tedesco.

Cathy Moore, deputy superintendent for school performance, said that student achievement wasn’t one of the guiding principles of the magnet program because they couldn’t agree before on how to measure it. She said they can do so now if that’s what the board wants.

Sutton said that Wake needs to maintain its focus on using magnet schools to keep schools diverse. But he said there’s also room for actions such as strategically placing some magnet school programs in Eastern Wake, where schools on average have lower test scores and higher percentages of students receiving federally subsidized lunches.

Moore said school administration wants the board to decide by the end of August which schools would get magnet programs.

“We have to come to a consensus on the role of magnets,” she said.

Moore then cautioned the board with advice usually associated with doctors: “First, do no harm.”

Hui: 919-829-4534

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