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Published in Print: May 26, 1999, as Study Highlights Benefits, Shortcomings of Magnet Programs

Study Highlights Benefits, Shortcomings of Magnet Programs

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Schools may help with desegregation, but they also can "cream off" better-educated, more affluent families, concludes a study that takes a close look at long-established programs in Cincinnati and St. Louis.

Vanderbilt University researchers Claire Smrekar and Ellen Goldring spent three years visiting magnet and nonmagnet elementary schools in both cities. They interviewed parents and teachers and surveyed thousands of students and their families for a new book, School Choice in Urban America, which was released last month by Teachers College Press.

But their findings may have as much to say about the school choice movement of the 1990s as they do about magnet schools, which developed in the 1970s as an alternative to mandatory busing.

"It highlights that when you don't have equal resources, adding choice to a system does not automatically make schools better," said Mary Erna Driscoll, an associate professor of education at New York University who reviewed the study.

By the mid-1990s, 1.2 million students in 230 districts nationwide were enrolled in magnet schools. Such schools typically are organized around a particular philosophy or academic specialty and draw students from throughout a district or metropolitan area.

Ms. Smrekar and Ms. Goldring chose to focus on the magnet systems in Cincinnati and St. Louis, both of which grew out of court-ordered agreements during the early 1980s, because they were well-established.

More than 46 percent of Cincinnati's public school students, for example, were enrolled in that district's 51 alternative programs when the researchers began their study in 1993. "They were what we called best-case scenarios," Ms. Goldring, a professor of educational leadership at Vanderbilt, said in an interview.

She and Ms. Smrekar concluded that, in a pair of school systems serving predominantly black student populations, the magnets created desegregated schools. In both districts, between half and 60 percent of the students in the alternative schools were African-American. That finding contrasts with national studies of federally supported magnet programs that suggest the specialized schools have been ineffective tools for integration. ( "Magnets' Value in Desegregating Schools Is Found To Be Limited," Nov. 13, 1996.)

But the researchers said their findings were not incompatible--in part because federal subsidies go to the hardest-to-desegregate districts.

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While they concluded that magnet schools are racially integrated, the researchers found "social segregation" in both cities.

In St. Louis, for example, one-third of magnet school parents earn less than $15,000 a year, compared with 68 percent of families with children in regular schools. Magnet school parents in that city are also three times more likely than nonmagnet parents to hold a college degree.

The imbalances occur in part, the authors conclude, because school officials relied only on the mass media to get word of their programs out to parents.

"The most socially isolated families don't travel outside their neighborhoods," said Ms. Smrekar, an associate professor of educational leadership. "The information has to be located in places where families live and do business--public-housing offices, churches, grocery stores."

The study revealed that parents gleaned most of what they knew about schools from their own social networks, which, in the case of lower-class families, were often unreliable. First-come, first-served admissions practices also favor parents with better transportation and more discretionary time.

The professors also found that the magnet programs themselves, while better than the largely neglected neighborhood schools, were "not remarkable."

"Many of the schools offered a very basic curriculum," Ms. Smrekar said. But the drawbacks, teachers and parents said, were worth the rewards: safer, more culturally diverse, and better- resourced schools for the students who attend them and teachers who work in them.

The researchers' findings may be all the more important as growing numbers of districts come out from under long-running court orders to desegregate. St. Louis was released from court supervision in March after forging an agreement that obligates the district to keep its magnet schools in place.

Vol. 18, Issue 39, Page 7

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