Magnet Schools (page 2)
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the United States was faced with how to carry out the integration called for in the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. In the years following Brown, various efforts had been made to promote racial integration by allowing African American families to send their children to previously all-white schools or by telling both white and African American families they had to send their children to previously segregated schools. Not surprisingly, these efforts had mixed results and often were extremely controversial. Once again, this chapter will not attempt to trace the intense history of desegregation efforts.
However, in the late 60s and early 70s, a new approach was suggested as a way to bring children of different races together. The idea was that additional funds would be provided to create schools offering special, more attractive programs that would attract families of different races. Thus, they would be magnet schools. Millions of dollars have been allocated to help create, and in some cases maintain, magnet schools. Magnets have been very popular in many communities.
Magnets can generally be divided into several groups. Some focused on a particular area, such as a school designed to help students prepare for a career in medicine or computers. Some magnets featured a particular philosophy, such as schools using the Montessori idea. And some were focused on students with particular characteristics, such as those with very high academic talent or strong artistic talent.
A large national study in the 1990s found that 56 percent of the nation's magnet schools have some form of admission test, and 24 percent of elementary magnet schools have admissions tests. Generally these were tests that students had to pass in order to get into the magnet schools (Steel & Levine, 1994).
Not surprisingly, this feature of magnets has been very controversial. Some educators and families have argued that it is not fair or appropriate to allow some publicly supported schools to be able to pick and choose among students, whereas other publicly funded schools must accept all kinds of students. Some studies have pointed out that magnet schools enroll a higher percentage of wealthy students than neighborhood schools. These critics argue that the magnets are not serving many of the low-income students who could benefit from their programs.
Another controversial aspect of many magnet programs and schools has been the extra money they receive. The St. Louis Post Dispatch found that in the 1986-1987 school year, elementary magnet schools received 42 percent more per pupil than neighborhood elementary schools. Magnet middle schools received 25 percent more than neighborhood schools and magnet high schools received 27 percent more than other city high schools (Hughes, 1998). Another study found that magnet schools in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago had substantially higher per-pupil budgets than neighborhood schools. This study disdainfully called these magnets "The New Improved Sorting Machine" (Davenport & Moore, 1988).
Some research supports magnet schools. For example, a large national study compared the achievement of 24,000 eighth- and tenth-grade students in urban high schools. It compared the achievement of students in large comprehensive high schools, Catholic schools, private schools, and public magnet schools. The author concluded that students who attended urban magnet schools learned more and outperformed those in the other schools. Among the reasons for better performance by magnet students were parental choice, students feeling a sense of membership and belonging, and a focused curriculum (Gamoran, 1996).
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