Case Studies of Magnet Schools: When Do They Work Best?

February 29, 1984 4 min read

Case studies of magnet schools support recent research findings suggesting that the smaller and more compact a school district is, the greater the promise of purely voluntary desegregation. As Mark A. Smylie of Vanderbilt University puts it, “If you’ve got one or two schools out of whack, you can put magnets there and solve your districtwide problem. It gets more difficult the more minority students you have and the more schools you have.”

And the presence of a numerical goal--enforceable through mandatory means if voluntary methods fail--also appears to be a powerful influence on the relative success of magnets.

The large urban districts generally considered most successful with magnets have made substantial progress through voluntary measures, but have either resorted to mandatory busing to achieve approximate racial balance in each school or left some schools racially isolated.

Some examples:

Montclair, N.J., a 5,800-student district, was able to eliminate mandatory busing with a comprehensive magnet-school program that was developed beginning in 1974. Each school now reflects, within 10 percentage points, the racial composition of the district, 47 percent of whose students are members of minority groups.

Montclair has at least one special program in each of its schools, ranging from science and technology to an arts magnet, says Judith H. Wilcox, acting assistant superintendent for instruction. “Deciding which magnets would appeal to the community we serve and where to put them was critical,” she adds.

The program was developed because of community displeasure with a court-ordered mandatory busing plan that required the transportation of about 1,400 students. The district now transports twice that many pupils, but, Ms. Wilcox says, they go willingly.

“A program of this type requires tremendous, tremendous commitment on the part of the board, the superintendent, and the community,” she says. “To believe that this was immediately accepted and welcomed with open arms is folly. It took time, support and diligence.

“With the endorsement and support of the community, it can work anyplace,” she adds. “I suppose size does play a role, but I think in some cases it has been used as an excuse for something not working.”

Milwaukee public-school officials, for example, credit magnet programs with bringing the proportion of students in racially balanced schools from 12 percent prior to 1976 to about 85 percent now, exceeding the court-ordered minimum of 75 percent, according to David A. Bennett, deputy superintendent. (A racially balanced school, as defined in that city’s court order, is one that is between 20 percent and 60 percent black. About 48 percent of Milwaukee’s 88,000 students are black.)

The city has about 40 magnet programs, in which approximately one-third of its students participate. But about 20 of the district’s 135 schools remain racially identifiable, or outside the court guidelines.

“I’m very confident that this approach realized the maximum amount of desegregation possible,” says Mr. Bennett.

Buffalo, similarly, has been able to make substantial headway toward meeting court-ordered desegregation requirements through the use of magnets, which now make up 37 percent of all the schools in the system--the largest concentration of magnets in any U.S. school district, according to Buffalo’s superintendent, Eugene Reville.

Buffalo’s 1976 court order went further than Milwaukee’s, requiring that all schools be racially balanced; the racial composition of each school must be between 30 percent and 55 percent black. The district has a total enrollment of about 46,000 students, 49 percent of whom are black.

About 80 percent of the city’s schools met this goal, according to Mr. Reville, but in 1981, the judge presiding over the case ordered that about 3,200 students be involuntarily reassigned to complete the process. “If we had been given more time, we believe we could have done it [completely on a] voluntary basis,” Mr. Reville says. “I’ve heard you can’t, but that’s just not true. They move, and they move in large numbers. ... It probably is a lot more difficult and time consuming than just writing up a plan and doing it. But in the long run it provides stability.”

Cincinnati, which heretofore has not been under court order, also has an extensive system of magnet schools. This year, about 15,000 of the district’s 51,000 students are enrolled in 21 magnet programs ranging from Montessori schools to programs stressing foreign languages and international studies. While most of the magnets roughly reflect the districtwide racial composition (57 percent black and 43 percent white), many neighborhood schools and a few alternative schools are imbalanced.

According to the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, out of the district’s total of 88 schools, 21 remain 80 percent or more black and eight are 80 percent to 100 percent white. The negotiated settlement reached this month calls for the creation of new magnets and the correction of racial imbalances in some existing schools.

Philadelphia has also tried to desegregate through voluntary means, but with far less success. According to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, which is seeking mandatory desegregation measures in Philadelphia, only 14 percent of the city’s schools were integrated as of April 1983, after 20 years of voluntary programs. Documents from the district present a somewhat more optimistic picture, indicating that the proportion of students attending desegregated schools increased from 15.6 percent in 1976-77 to 30 percent in 1980-81, the most recent year covered.--pc

A version of this article appeared in the February 29, 1984 edition of Education Week as Case Studies of Magnet Schools: When Do They Work Best?