Magnets Touted for Serving Needy Students

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Magnet schools nationwide should continue and expand--as long as districts make sure the programs reach the neediest students, concludes a report issued last week by the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights.

The commission, a Washington-based bipartisan group that tracks civil rights issues, based its recommendation on a study of magnet schools in St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Nashville, Tenn.

The group found some evidence that those magnet schools improve educational opportunities for poor and minority students. But it said more research on the subject is needed.

Coming at a time of growing interest in magnet programs, private school vouchers, and other alternatives to traditional public schools, the report was intended to contribute hard evidence to the debate over school choice, said Corrine M. Yu, the commission's director.

Ellen Goldring and Claire Smrekar, both researchers at the Peabody School of Education at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, gathered and analyzed 1993-94 data from the three districts, while the commission summarized the research and drew conclusions. Funding for the research and report came from the Spencer Foundation in Chicago and the Pew Charitable Trusts in Philadelphia.

Over the past two decades, magnet schools specializing in certain subject themes or educational methods have been largely used by urban districts in an effort to integrate schools. The three districts were chosen for the study because they all started magnet schools under court-ordered desegregation plans at least 15 years ago.

Focus on Poor Urged

To make magnets more accessible to poor students, districts should require all parents to chose magnet or neighborhood schools, distribute magnet information at grocery stores and gas stations, and locate magnets in low-income neighborhoods, the commission says.

"Choices like magnet schools do not automatically serve poor children," Ms. Yu said. "We definitely need to keep working on it. Districts need to make low-income parents aware of magnet programs because they don't have the same social networks as other parents."

Superintendent Cleveland Hammonds Jr. of the St. Louis schools, who had not seen the report last week, said it was inevitable that parents with more money and education would pursue magnet schools for their children. The key, he said, is to improve the neighborhood schools that educate poorer children.

"We can't let a child's education depend on whether the parent decides to enroll them in a magnet school," Mr. Hammonds said.

The report says poor and minority children tend to do better in magnet schools because those schools attract strong principals and dedicated teachers with advanced degrees.

"When we started magnet schools, we did this campaign telling everyone how great they are, and it became a self-fulfilling prophecy," Mr. Hammonds said.

Integration Goals Achieved

Magnet schools in the three districts examined by the Vanderbilt researchers achieved their goal of promoting integration, according to the report.

In Cincinnati and Nashville, the percentage of black students enrolled in magnet programs is about the same as the percentage of black children districtwide. In St. Louis, which allows black students from the city to attend predominantly white suburban schools in addition to magnet programs in the district, most students attend desegregated schools.

The state of Missouri has asked a federal judge to end the 22-year-old desegregation plan in St. Louis, although the district wants it to continue.

The commission's findings on desegregation differ from a study endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education last year, which found that federally subsidized magnet programs had achieved only limited success in reaching their desegregation goals. ("Magnets' Value in Desegregating Schools Is Found To Be Limited," Nov. 13, 1996.)

David Armor, a professor at the Institute of Public Policy at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., who was not involved in the Vanderbilt study, said magnets can improve educational opportunities as long as a district doesn't have too many of them.

Mr. Armor said, for example, that magnet programs in Savannah, Ga., and Kansas City, Mo., have helped integrate schools.

"There are an awful lot of magnet schools that never attracted an integrated student body," Mr. Armor said. "But if you go to individual cities that did it right and maintained racial balance controls, like I know St. Louis has, magnets generally work well as desegregation tools."

For More Information:

Further information is available from the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, 2000 M St. N.W., Suite 400, Washington, D.C. 20036; (202) 659-5565; e-mail: [email protected]

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