Talk opens on magnet schools

Mar. 28, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

Parents of public school children in Lee County wanting more personalized educational strategies could have something to look forward to in the coming months.

The Lee County Board of Education is exploring the creation of one or more magnet schools, which officials say would lead to increased choice in the county. While larger districts like Wake County, Cumberland County and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools implement the programs at the middle and high school levels, Lee County Schools are looking into doing so in the elementary schools.

Magnet schools are schools that have a specific focus — fine arts and music, government and civics, science and math, foreign language and more — which are open to students from all over the county, regardless of the district in which a student actually lives. Students still go through regular curriculum, just with a greater focus on the school’s theme. The set-up can also vary between a traditional or year-round calendar, as well as a classical or Montessori teaching philosophy.

“What’s exciting to me about it is the potential this could open up to the children,” Tamara Brogan, the school board member who’s leading research and planning into the issue, said Wednesday. “If children are excited about something ... then they’re more likely to engage in the learning process and work harder at it. And that’s what we want.”

Brogan said she and Linda Smith — who constitute the school board’s Curriculum and Instruction Committee — met Tuesday with Andy Bryan, the district’s associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, to get the ball rolling on a rough draft she described as “still very much in the infant stage.”

So while there are no plans to have this ready by next school year — if it happens at all — Brogan said there are already a few known factors: It would start as a pilot program in one or two schools. Transportation issues could provide large stumbling blocks and must be addressed before any changes are made. Decisions about the calendar and teaching style would be left up to the individual schools. And although certain themes will dominate, the schools must abide by the same curriculum other North Carolina public schools use.

Prior to coming to Lee County in early 2009, Superintendent Jeff Moss headed two North Carolina school systems — Stanly County and Beaufort County — that had magnet schools, and he said he’s excited for the prospect that Lee County may establish some, although he’ll be in a new job in South Carolina before that happens.

“I think they add a lot to providing parental choice,” he said. “... The possibilities are endless.”

Lynn Smith, chairman of the school board, said he likes the idea and thinks that — after the widespread protests that derailed a proposal to switch all elementary and middle schools to a year-round calendar several months ago — magnet schools could lead to a compromise with what parents want and what he and other school officials thought would be best.

“What I heard at the public forum (on the calendar change) is people want a choice — they do not want to be forced into anything,” Smith said, adding that that he still personally favors year-round education and is hopeful that any magnet schools would also be year-round.

Brogan said that while all discussion now is focused on elementary schools, she could also imagine a magnet program in one or more middle schools in the future, as well. But for now, she said, they’re trying to stay focused on elementary students because they want to change attitudes toward school at a young age.

“I’ve got five children, and I know that if my children are excited about a subject, they’re going to work harder at it,” Brogan said. “... That’s what’s exciting to me, because I can see how this could really excite our students. I was the same. As I’m looking at some of these (magnet) schools, I’m thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I would have had this.’ Honestly, I probably would’ve done better and worked harder when I was a student.”

The program will be discussed at the school board’s April 9 meeting, scheduled for 6 p.m. at Lee County High School’s board room. Brogan said she welcomes any and all input and encouraged people to come hear about it in person.