Magnet schools lose pull

  • Article by: DAAREL BURNETTE II , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 12, 2011 - 11:32 AM

St. Paul will end almost half of its 36 magnet school programs in the next few years. Changing demographics, cutbacks in funding and a sharper focus on test scores are working against the original concept.

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From left, Nini Win, age 11, and Precious Ranson and Amarita Biswa, both 12, conducted a water treatment experiment at their St. Paul magnet school.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Ramonn Boggs, a fourth-grader at St. Paul's first-ever magnet school, leaned in close to a glowing computer screen and masterfully placed the last stroke of blue on his "Save the Electricity" pamphlet he plans to distribute in his neighborhood.

In almost every class this year -- English, math, science, computer science and even physical education -- Ramonn has studied sources of energy, how he uses it and ways to save it. Becoming a productive citizen is the "magnet" at Barack and Michelle Obama Service Learning School, but big changes are afoot.

"Magnet schools were supposed to provide above and beyond what neighborhood schools could," said Kate Wilcox-Harris, St. Paul Public Schools' chief of academic services. "But in this new testing culture, we have to get back to teaching the core curriculum."

Administrators are questioning the success of the district's 36 elementary magnet schools, envisioned in the mid-1970s as a means of slowing white flight to the suburbs and providing better opportunities for students of color. St. Paul's magnet schools include a gifted and talented school blocks from the State Capitol, several Montessori programs and an aerospace school where students ride in sophisticated flight simulators and design spacesuits.

School data, however, now show that students of color perform as well or even better at neighborhood schools than at the district's magnet schools, many of which are now far from diverse.

As part of a district reorganization that the school board approved last month, administrators will turn almost half of the elementary magnet programs into neighborhood schools.

Magnet advocates such as St. Paul's NAACP chapter and the African American Leadership Council say school officials have failed to provide magnet schools with tools needed for success.

"Many of the designated magnet schools are not operating as true magnets," they told board members in a tersely worded letter. "In fact, three of the five most segregated schools are magnet schools. The real issue is not magnet versus community schools, but segregation and concentrated poverty."

At the Obama school, 95 percent of pupils qualify for free or reduced-priced lunches and are students of color. The school has repeatedly failed to meet adequate yearly progress goals and is being forced by the state to restructure.

Critics aren't necessarily wrong in their assessment of inadequate funding. Nationally, federal funding for magnet schools, which educate more than 2 million students, has remained flat as the government has shifted education reform money toward charter schools, which are privately run schools funded with tax dollars. Funding for Minnesota's 100 magnet schools and programs hangs in limbo as the Legislature debates whether to end integration funding.

Grant money dried up

The concept of magnet schools began after contentious desegregation court cases forced urban districts to provide equal access to all students regardless of race or income.

Spurred by federal and state incentives, school boards began building glossy magnet schools equipped with the latest technology in poor neighborhoods to draw a diverse selection of parents and students from across the district.

Obama, founded as Webster Elementary in 1976, became one of the nation's first magnet schools. The school became a testing ground for new learning methods, including Spanish immersion.

But over the years, Wilcox-Harris said, grant money used to transport students across the city and provide specialized teacher training dried up and struggling urban districts were left to keep the schools afloat. St. Paul isn't alone in its struggles as Minneapolis also ended four of its 16 magnet programs last year.

"In order for magnet schools to work, they need to have something special about them to attract middle-class families," said Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a New York-based think tank that analyzes policy issues, including education and equal opportunity.

In 1999, St. Paul stopped using race and family income to decide which students would be admitted to magnet schools. As the city's demographics changed, racial lopsidedness at magnet schools became more apparent. More than half of Obama's students were white a decade ago; today they represent less than 5 percent of the student body. The school was built for more than 1,000 students but now has 569.

Many of the schools' test scores plummeted, as well. High-poverty schools tend to have fewer involved parents and attract the least qualified teachers, Kahlenberg said.

"The research suggests that when magnet schools are able to bring an economic mix into the school, they perform very well," he said.

St. Paul's 2014 strategic plan calls for 16 elementary magnet schools to revert to traditional neighborhood schools, ending transportation for students who don't live near the school. Nine magnet schools will admit only those students who live in surrounding neighborhoods. Ten will remain open to the entire district. The plan will be implemented over the next four years.

That frustrates parents such as Scott Chazdon, a researcher at the University of Minnesota Extension who sent his children to EXPO for Excellence Magnet because of its unique curriculum and diversity. The school will lose its citywide magnet status in 2013.

"To me, why you would want your kid to attend a public school is for them to learn about different walks of life and to have a sense that this is a diverse country," he said.

Superintendent Valeria Silva contends that the schools will retain their diversity because St. Paul neighborhoods are more diverse than they were 40 years ago.

"We're going to invest heavily in the remaining magnets," Wilcox-Harris said. "When we do it with fidelity, that's when we're going to start getting results."

Several of the remaining magnets will expand into middle and high schools.

By 2014, Obama Service Learning will expand to become a pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade College Preparatory Academy magnet school. That's good news for 10-year-old Ramonn, who teachers say has blossomed into a real leader this year. He's already written his own play and soon will give his peers a lesson on electricity.

Daarel Burnette II • 651-735-1695

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