National conference showcases Wake County’s magnet schools

Hunter Elementary orchestra performs for Magnet visitors

The Hunter Elementary School orchestra gets rousing applause as they perform for Magnet Schools of America visitors on April 23, 2015.
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The Hunter Elementary School orchestra gets rousing applause as they perform for Magnet Schools of America visitors on April 23, 2015.

Wake County’s 40 magnet schools are on display to 1,100 educators who have come to Raleigh from around the country to see what lessons they can learn from North Carolina’s largest school district.

The Wake County school system is host to this week’s Magnet Schools of America’s national conference at the Raleigh Convention Center. Educators from Wake magnet schools are leading some sessions at the conference, while the district’s magnet schools opened their doors Thursday to tours from attendees.

“I’m very impressed by what we’ve seen – both with the electives here and the ease with which the students are able to comfortably talk with adults,” said Cindy Wilson, a reading specialist from Mount Airy City Schools, as she toured Hunter Elementary School in Raleigh.

Wilson said she came to the conference to see what she can learn to help her district compete with a charter school in Mount Airy.

Magnet schools have long provided Wake County with competition, first with private schools and more recently with charter schools. For the upcoming school year, Wake found spots for 49 percent of the 5,531 applicants to magnet schools.

Since 1982, Wake has used the magnet program to diversify school enrollments, fill under-enrolled schools and provide additional educational opportunities. Magnet schools offer programs typically not found at regular schools, such as advanced arts and foreign language courses.

At Hunter Elementary, 120 different electives are offered at any given time as part of the school’s themes: Academically Gifted Basics and Gifted and Talented. Students take two 40-minute electives a day, such as reading and writing poetry, photography, chess, orchestra, ballet and cup stacking – which involves placing specialized plastic cups in specific sequences as quickly as possible.

“I think when children have the opportunity to select what they want to learn about, they become engaged,” said Danielle Stewart, incoming PTA president at Hunter Elementary and the mother of a first-grade student there. “That ownership in her day makes a huge difference.”

Wake’s magnet programs have drawn national acclaim. Twenty-three schools received awards this year from Magnet Schools of America, representing more than 2,000 schools. Five Wake schools are in the running to be named the top magnet school in the nation Saturday. Combs Elementary School in Raleigh won that award last year.

“Magnet schools are greatly successful in desegregating public schools and the great thing is it does so for ostensibly educational reasons other than pure racial mixing,” said Andy Taylor, a political science professor at N.C. State University.

Taylor is co-author of a new book called “The End of Consensus: Diversity, Neighborhoods, and the Politics of Public School Assignment,” which tracks the contentious history of assignment in Wake County.

Wake’s magnet program has also drawn complaints from some parents who say its success has come at the cost of denying some offerings to non-magnet schools. Critics also charge that magnets don’t really promote diversity as much as supporters maintain.

“They said it just created segregation on a campus,” Taylor said. “So you had mainly white kids in ‘one school’ and mainly less affluent or disproportionately minority students in sort of ‘another school’ in that same physical space.”

But Taylor said that overall the community has viewed magnet schools as being a positive for Wake County.

It was seen as a positive as well by the roughly 60 visitors who toured Hunter Elementary Thursday.

Mike Taylor, the performing arts facilitator for a magnet school in Wichita, Kan., said Hunter offers lessons on how providing choice for courses can encourage diversity without using busing.

“The students were telling us about all the choices they have,” Taylor said. “People like having choice.”

Hui: 919-829-4534; Twitter: @nckhui