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Are Magnet Schools the Answer

The concept of diversity in America is likely to become more of a reality with the prospect of a Black man or female becoming the next president of the United States. However, outside the Oval Office, minority students are still not well represented within the country’s best educational systems.

Segregation persistently abounds in the public schools. Racial segregation in schools most often reflects the surrounding community and therefore appears corollary at first glance. Nationally, students in largely minority communities often suffer the consequences of attending failing inner-city schools.

While the struggle to overcome the barriers of racial inequality in public education was validated in Brown v. Board of Education, the problem of deficient schools stubbornly prevailed in minority communities. Between the mid-1960s to the late 1970s, federal courts and government agencies demanded raceconscious policies in every aspect of school operations. During the early years of integration, racial balance quotas were adopted and one of the most controversial aspects of school desegregation involved assigning students to schools. Yet, school boards and state legislatures countered by using various tactics to avoid the desegregation decrees through initiatives like the massive resistance and the Southern manifesto, which resulted in a substantial withdrawal of children from public schools into private, segregated academies, causing the withdrawal of considerable financial support.

As a result, many experts promoted the merits of voluntary compliance for desegregation as opposed to mandatory because of its market-driven approach. Author Betsy Levin argues that this resistance to integration in education left public schools servicing mainly minority populations. Writer Jonathan Kozol describes it as “apartheid education.” Currently, the number of minority children attending integrated schools has dropped to its lowest level since 1968. In fact, Blacks and Hispanics compose 56 percent of students in urban areas. Minority children still underachieve by the millions through no fault of their own, but by virtue of sheer locality.

President Bush’s 2003 implementation of No Child Left Behind, despite all of its critics and detractors, continues to be a laudable effort to bring the nation’s schools into alignment with the U.S. Department of Education’s promise to provide “a free and appropriate public education” to all America’s children. Under No Child Left Behind, parents have the right to remove their children from failing schools and enroll them in high-performing schools. Today, magnet schools are considered high-performing options for parents.

Magnet schools are public schools that offer specialized instructional program in particular disciplines. For example, there are magnet schools that offer concentrations in math and science and others that specialize in the arts or humanities. Magnet schools are designed to accommodate students with particular interests and scholastic ability and, to this end, the curricula reflect high academic standards. Quality instruction is a major emphasis in magnet schools, as teachers are required to demonstrate the proficiency to teach at accelerated levels. Because magnet schools are public schools, students typically are not required to pay tuition. However, acceptance is usually required. As well, the name “magnet” reflects the draw with which magnet schools receive students. Students may live in any surrounding area and apply to a magnet school.

There are specific ways a magnet system could be set up in a way that will address segregation. A magnet program designed to combat segregation should encompass educational goals and objectives that will equalize the educational experience of students otherwise marginalized by segregation. Developing the theme for the magnet program begins with soliciting parental opinions and support. Noted researchers from the Magnet Schools of America, Robert Brooks, Lisa Kammel, Phyllis Olmstead, Gladys Pack, and Judith S. Stein suggest that Magnet school officials first tap parents.

Parental input serves the purpose of ensuring the understanding of community needs and expectations. Secondly, a magnet program should look to galvanize the resources needed to accomplish its goals in order to build a support base for its theme and purpose. For a magnet school with a theme of providing a quality alternative to desegregation, its vision, mission statement, curriculum design, recruitment criteria and academic program should all be informed by this theme and marketed accordingly.

Can the infusion of magnet schools resolve the issue of inferior education in inner-city schools? James Traub, social commentator, argues that there is no single strategy that can close the overall achievement gap evidenced in the nation’s segregated education system. However, that being said, we believe that, focused correctly, magnet schools can effectively improve America’s education system and provide viable education opportunities for innercity students who might otherwise be doomed to failure.

 — Bonnie Banks is a doctoral candidate at Regent University. Daryl D. Green is an adjunct professor at Knoxville College and special assistant to the acting president at the college.

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