Magnet Schools Give Students the Route to Engage, Achieve

Nov 20, 2017

I was bored the entirety of my pre-high school academic life. I moved from grade to grade, unchallenged. One of my earliest memories of this was in first grade. I had known my classmates for two years, and I had begun to notice something. Those who didn't enjoy their time at school were an unlikely duo of schoolyard demographics. Both students with outstandingly good grades, and those with outstandingly bad ones disliked going to school. From this, I came to the conclusion that school was too easy for the top, and too difficult for the bottom.

At this point, my grade had three classes, so I suggested that we break it up into a 1st-tier class, a 2nd-tier class, and a 3rd-tier class. This, obviously, was not hailed with jubilation declaring that I had “solved” education. I was told that it would be unfair. First-grade me did not see how, but now I hope I can shed light onto both sides of what I thought of as tiered classes.

Luckily, my perceived misery ended. In sixth grade, I found my holy grail. Not just a 1st-tier class, or grade, but an entire 1st-tier high school, the Maine School of Science and Mathematics

This type of specialized public high school is known as a magnet school, funded by both donation and state funds. They overall are much less strict in the relation between grade and class level. For example, a freshman with both the ability and will, could take calculus. There are over 3,400 of these magnet schools in the U.S., with approximately 2.6 million students. These schools specialize in everything from engineering and natural sciences to performing arts and agriculture. Maine is surprisingly behind in this new type of school, with only one magnet school, serving around 150 students.

Magnet schools are often confused with charter and private schools. Private schools have significantly less government funding, and usually charge tuition. Both charter and magnet schools are public, but typically have selective admittance. The primary difference between the two is that charter schools are not generally administered by the government, while magnet schools are. These different policies show themselves in student achievement and standardized tests.

According to research in student achievement, magnet school students often outperform their peers from both religious and secular private schools, as well as students from comprehensive public high schools.

Unfortunately, with SAT scores, magnet and charter schools are fused together when statistics are created on different types of schools. Nevertheless, the “special admittance” public schools have an average of 1430 on the SAT, well over 200 points more than the traditional public schools average, which is typically placed around 1100, according to research published by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. But not so fast. This could have more to do with the students than the school itself.

Unfortunately for some, magnet schools overwhelmingly serve the top performing students. This is good for them, but remember, their students came from somewhere. Their removal from traditional high schools is sometimes a problem. 

Victor Harbison, a history teacher in Chicago, wrote on a New York Times blog, “We tightened security, installed metal detectors. And adopted ideas like zero tolerance. And neighborhood schools, without restrictive admission based on test scores, quickly spiraled downwards.” With the best role models gone, public schools’ test scores went down, even among those that were previously very academically competitive.

Though I escaped my perceived misery by heading to MSSM, students for whom school was too difficult, not too easy, became more miserable, stuck in the same place they had always been. The obvious solution is to commit an equal amount of funding to “3rd-tier” schools as to 1st-tier schools.

Unfortunately, the effects on the top 10 percent of students through magnet schools would likely be far different than the effect on the bottom 10 percent. The resources invested in special education programs just through traditional schools, $16,921 per student per year, is more than double the average student’s cost, $7,552. Because of this, 3rd-tier magnet schools would likely be much more expensive than 1st-tier magnet schools. On top of this, they would probably produce significantly less of the highly paid graduates that turn around and help fund magnet schools like mine.

In the end, there is no doubt that magnet schools improve individuals. The questions that remain, however are numerous: Who should go to them? How do they affect other schools? Are they cost efficient? These all must be studied further by our government to explore this interesting new form of education.

Ryan Fitzmaurice is a student at the Maine School of Science and Mathematics in Limestone. He produced this piece while taking part in the 2017 Raise Your Voice Workshop in Portland, sponsored by Maine Public and the Maine Writing Project.