What’s a Magnet School, Anyway?

Now, I’m not a complete idiot.  Many of my friends have sent their kids to magnets schools.  I’m aware of them in a vague “before there were charters there were magnets” way.  I also—full disclosure—did not send my own children to a magnet because my husband and I were bewildered by the complexity of the magnet application system and daunted by the sense that in order to get our kids in, we would have had to apply before they were even born, maybe before we were even born.  Who knew?  Not us.  But in order to understand the context of Jennifer Macon‘s class at Cleveland Magnet School, I realize I need to know what a “magnet school” means.

Magnets are incredibly complicated to explain but are basically a kind of “school within a school.”  Often, they operate within larger public schools; Cleveland High, for example, has almost 4,000 students, of whom 850 are in the Humanities Magnet (the others are divided into small learning communities with a variety of names; if you have, say, a month of free time and no personal relationships, you might want to spend several thousand hours trying to understand the genesis of these.  Also, like in the last ten minutes, Cleveland High itself has become a charter.  Don’t ask.)

A magnet is different from a traditional public school because you have to apply.  Acceptance is based on the number of “magnet points” you’ve accumulated, which are awarded on a point system so byzantine that though I just stared at the L.A. Times’ explanation of it for the last five minutes, I still don’t understand it.  Basically, you get points based on where you live, how many times you’ve already been rejected by the system and a whole bunch of other stuff, plus the magnet must maintain a balance of 40% white students and 60% students of color in some neighborhoods, or 30% white, 70% students of color in other places.  Back in the 1970’s when it was developed, this 40/60 balance was originally intended to work toward desegregation and social justice, but in light of the fact that the LAUSD is now actually only 8.8% white, this balance may arguably be creating an effect that unintentionally tilts excellent schools once again in favor of white, privileged students.

My head hurts.  Sandra Tsing-Loh and Angel Zobel-Rodriguez, aka the Magnet Yentas, have anticipated this reaction, and have started a program called Magnets and Martinis, if you also feel like drinking before thinking about magnets any further.  Their site, Ask a Magnet Yenta, offers a  more detailed explanation.

In other words, most magnets (except for the gifted or highly gifted magnets, oy, where’s my Martini?) do not select students based on academic ability.

On the other hand, by virtue of their complex application process, magnets do select students whose parents are unbelievably savvy, smart, dedicated, motivated advocates for their children, willing and able to parse through mountains of data and leverage their social networks to be in the know about how to accumulate the number of rejections you need because the last thing you want is for little Angelica to get accepted at a school she was only applying to in order to get rejection points but really didn’t want to attend.

Not surprisingly, having been raised by these incredibly motivated parents, magnet students tend to be unusually smart, dedicated and motivated as well.  Many people, like my husband, will say that these kids deserve a fast-paced program that meets their needs.  Others, like Dennis Danziger, the Venice High teacher I’ll be visiting on Wednesday, will argue that we have no comparable system to meet the needs of at-risk kids who did not have the good fortune to be born to unusually smart, dedicated, motivated parents and who arguably deserve enrichment more, not less.

Often, magnets operate on the premises of a school whose general student body is significantly more economically disadvantaged and is mainly Latino and African-American.  At Cleveland, for example, Jennifer estimates that about 28% of Cleveland Humanities Magnet students come from families in poverty, compared with 63% at the regular school.  In terms of race, at Cleveland Humanities magnet, 60% are students of color, compared with 97% at the regular school.

The way you feel about magnets may be similar to the way you feel about charter schools, and can touch on where you stand on issues of race, class and privilege—as well as how (or if) we as a country should be using the educational system to redress imbalances.  Collectively, these are called “choice” schools and are the flashpoint of a great deal of the educational debate right now.  You can check out some of that debate here.

Anyway, all of this may give some context for my next post, where I describe Jennifer’s class at Cleveland Humanities Magnet where she teaches, among other things, the idea of context—and when I visit Dennis’ regular mainstream, non-magnet class at Venice High later this week.

Please keep posting your comments!  The thoughtful disagreement is really interesting.  Thank you!


3 thoughts on “What’s a Magnet School, Anyway?”

  1. Any system that encourages people — adults or children — to rack up rejections in order to get what they want is a system that begs to be corrupted, and is seriously in need of fixing.

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