Magnet schools in America offer the opportunity for students to access more specialized public schooling outside of their ‘zoned’ school, but many still lack truly diverse and accessible engagement with the benefits of the program.
Mary Panitz, a student in the Cambridge AICE magnet at Rockledge High School in Rockledge, Florida, reflects on the ways in which the program has benefitted her. The magnet is an international diploma program which allows students the chance to take college credit courses at the high school level. Panitz shares some of the benefits of the program. She reflects that AICE generally has smaller class sizes, centers on writing and projects rather than tests, and also has field trip opportunities. As a student who loves reading and writing, there is one huge benefit for Panitz.
“I really like it, I think AICE, has really improved my writing because the emglish classes are phenomenal… and I find it really interesting,” said Panitz. “I think I’m better at articulating nad communicating what I’m thinking.”
Laura Alyssa Plate is a teacher in Gwinnett County, Georgia who formerly worked as a magnet teacher at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Prince Georgia County in Maryland. During her time in Prince Georgia, the surrounding population was around 80% minority while the magnet system of the district was vastly dominated by white students. In 1971, the Supreme Court ruling in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg promoted the usage of busing to promote integration in public schooling, but Plate notes that the changes haven’t been truly effective.
“The magnet program in Prince Georgia County was created as a solution to theCharlotte-Mecklenburg ruling about busing, and it has not really gotten any more equitable since then,” said Plate.
With much lower diversity within the magnet, the school starts to feel extremely separated -almost into two different schools. The environment of the whole district facilitates the idea that students within the magnet program are better than those outside of it. Plate taught students both in and out of the magnet and finds that those within the program often look down on those outside of it.
“They (students outside of the magnet) definitely feel like they are worthless in the eyes of the school compared to the students that are in the program,” she said. “And the students within the program often would say things like ‘Well Ms. Plate you don’t have to deal with the other kids in this school, you don’t get it’ without realizing I also taught kids outside of the program.”
Even beyond issues of racial diversity and access within magnet programs, the issue of mental health contributes to decreased involvement. Ren Lloyd, a magnet student at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia, notes that for many of the students in the magnet program, there seems to be increased mental health issues, particularly towards the end of the school year with AP testing, final exams and courses coming to an end.
“I know a lot of my friends who, their mental health was just really bad, really low, especially towards the end of the year when you’re trying to wrap things up,” Lloyd said.
Even though the mental health issue seems prevalent, the program -nor the school as a whole- does not seem not to provide resources to support students with these issues. Lloyd describes every school year as a cycle of just coping with the issues.
“ I really don’t think the program does enough to take care of that. You have school counselors, but they’re not therapists,” she said. “It’s just a lot of ‘I’m just going to cope with it until it gets better and the school year ends’ and then it just kind of restarts the next school year.”
This strain on mental well-being is not unique to North Cobb. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, an American foundation focused primarily on health, created a report on adolescent wellness and cites key factors of a child’s life which could affect their overall wellness. Among factors like poverty, racial discrimination and trauma, an ‘Excessive pressure to excel’ is noted. Students in high-achieving environments face a unique pressure to excel in studies which lends to them being deemed as “at risk” for behavioral and mental health issues, according to The Washington Post. For students of diverse racial, social and economic standing, the presence of a magnet program only doubles (or in some cases triples) down on pre-established systems adding to mental issues.
Though the dynamics of magnet schooling can create harmful environments for students both within a magnet program and the other students in schools, there is still the possibility to improve these environments and truly provide equitable and accessible magnet programming in public schools. Plate notes that one major change, which the Prince Georgia area is currently making, is shifting away from applications to magnet programs and instead to lottery applications. She mentions the success of the magnet system in Gwinnett County which has always used a lottery system.
“They (Gwinnett County) have had great success with a lottery system without picking kids based on what their academic strengths and weaknesses are,” Plate said.
Plate also notes that aside from magnet schooling, there are themed schools, school choice programs and other specialized programs which can allow for greater access to the subjects, classes and topics that students are truly interested in. Though she finds there is much room for reform in these programs, she is largely a supporter of magnet, themed, and otherwise specialized programs in schools.
“We need to rethink how we send kids to magnet schools,” she said. “The more opportunities we can give them to find something that they love and enjoy in an equitable way… is going to be where the most learning happens.”