Changing a neighborhood school into a districtwide magnet can help educators to balance racial diversity, but it’s a tough tightrope act, suggests a new longitudinal study.
The research, looking at schools participating in the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program, finds that such programs do boost diversity, but still struggle to achieve a full balance of students of different backgrounds and academic levels.
Magnet schools were developed to counteract neighborhood racial and ethnic segregation by attracting a wide variety of students with specialized academic and arts programs.
“When many of the magnet schools started in the 1970s, they really were pioneering forms of school choice,” said Julian Betts, the lead study investigator and an economist at the University of California, San Diego. “In today’s landscape, with all these different types of school choice operating, it’s a more competitive environment ... but they still have a role.”
In some ways, magnet schools have been overshadowed by the rapid growth of charters, with 5,700 charters nationwide compared to 4,000 magnet schools. However, magnet programs still enroll more students, with 2.1 million enrolled in charters versus 2.6 million in magnets, federal data show.
Mr. Betts and a team of researchers from the American Institutes for Research tracked the achievement and racial and socioeconomic diversity of 21 unnamed neighborhood schools for two years before and four years after each converted to a magnet program using federal grants awarded in 2004 and 2007.
The sample included 17 so-called “traditional” magnet schools, those converted from neighborhood schools with high proportions of poor or minority students, which performed below their district average before being changed, and four “destination” magnets, former neighborhood schools with higher concentrations of white and wealthier students who performed better than the district average. Those two broad categories encompassed a wide variety of curriculum and teaching themes, including visual and performing arts, International Baccalaureate programs, and experiential learning models. None of the programs studied required test-based admission. All served their whole school, rather than being self-contained.
Converting a lower-performing, high-minority school into a magnet program significantly increased the percentage of students attending from outside the neighborhood—from 21 percent to 26 percent—but, on the surface, it did not change the share of minority students or of those in poverty at the school.
However, other district schools saw an increase in minority students during the same period, suggesting the magnets helped to close racial gaps at least somewhat. No similar gaps closed between poor and wealthier students.
“In no situation do we see nonresident students just flooding into magnet schools,” Mr. Betts said. “They come, but [the] majority are still resident students.”
Administrators who want to reduce racial or socioeconomic achievement gaps should consider establishing magnet programs in disadvantaged neighborhoods, Mr. Betts said: “The number of lower-income and minority students participating in the new curriculum is bound to be higher in the traditional form of magnet school than in the destination [magnets].”
Magnets converted from schools in wealthier neighborhoods saw more students from low-income backgrounds, but not changes in racial diversity. Sami T. Kitmitto, a co- author and a principal researcher with the AIR, said there was no evidence that the magnet conversion caused the changed student population, as other neighborhood schools saw similar rises in poverty.
While prior research has shown academic improvements for students who transfer to magnet programs, Mr. Betts and his colleagues found no significant benefits for neighborhood students who attend magnet programs.
At destination schools that started out performing above the district average, achievement did not improve even as district achievement rose. That may be because of the influx of lower-achieving students, the researchers suggested.
“It’s not that we’re finding none of the magnet schools have an impact on achievement; it’s that it’s quite mixed,” Mr. Betts said. Nine magnet schools saw significant improvements in math and language arts; six saw declines, and the rest had no difference. “Really, the next step here is to find out what is the magic elixir here for some of these schools,” he said.
Wake County’s Experience
The Wake County, N.C., district, which depends on a system of open-application assignments to 40 magnet schools to integrate its schools without using race or poverty information on individual students, offers a recent case in point. An analysis this month by the local newspaper News & Observer found magnets with higher proportions of low-income students had fewer applications than those with wealthier students. Among the schools that drew fewer students was Brentwood Magnet Elementary School of Engineering, ranked second among magnet schools in the nation by the professional group Magnet Schools of America. Brentwood was converted from a low-performing-neighborhood school bordering Raleigh’s urban ring.
“I think it’s difficult when families come to visit a school, they want to see other students who look like their child, because they don’t want their child to be the ‘only one,’ whatever that only one is,” said Tamani Powell, the director of marketing for the office of magnet programs in Wake County, N.C., who was not associated with the study. “Some of [the magnets] struggle because they do a very good job but their [student population] still looks one way. We really have to get a critical mass” of students from different backgrounds.
A version of this article appeared in the June 10, 2015 edition of Education Week as Magnet Schools Found to Boost Diversity—But Only a Bit