To many people, a magnet school program that accepts all students, regardless of test scores, grades, or behavior sounds like a contradiction in terms.

Not so in Frankford, where the Frankford Bridges Magnet Program has been getting middle school students and teachers excited about math, science, and technology for the past two years. The program is open to all students in the neighborhood’s middle schools and, more recently, at Frankford High School.

It may not be as glamorous as the new Microsoft High School recently announced with great fanfare by the School District, but for the past two years this homegrown program has been quietly making strides in creating an excellent public school option for students in the Frankford area.

Letting families know that this is not a program just for the "smart kids" is a challenge for Magnet Coordinator Dr. Carol Sienkiewicz, who says that she tells students who are interested in the program, "You don’t have to be a genius, but you have to come with an attitude of learning."

Students from many academic backgrounds have enrolled in the program, including English Language Learners and students identified as mentally gifted and special needs.

East Region Director of Instructional Support and Services Jean Farlino says that including all students strengthens the program. "I don’t believe in programs that segregate in any way," she says. "At this point, I don’t see a downside."

The inclusion of all students has certainly not impacted the academic rigor of the program.

Serving 426 students in the Frankford area last year, the Frankford Bridges Magnet Program includes twelve classes of students at the middle school level – two classrooms in each grade at Harding Middle School and a classroom in grades 6 to 8 at both Hopkinson and Edmunds Elementary Schools.

Magnet program students are immersed in a curriculum that focuses on math, science, and technology. Curriculum-based field trips are frequent; tutoring and afterschool clubs are built into the program.

Classrooms are outfitted with computer "mini-labs," each with 20 laptop computers with wireless Internet connections. Handheld computers were ordered over the summer so that students can take them on field trips to enter data and then download their findings when they return to the classroom.

Secondary-certified math and science resource teachers work closely with approximately 20 magnet program teachers, helping them plan lessons, demonstrating model lessons in the classroom, and ensuring that the curriculum is preparing students for high school level work.

Magnet school teachers also attend weekly professional development sessions focused on their content areas.

At Frankford High School, to which the program has recently expanded, over 200 students are now enrolled in the Bridges program. This year, students will begin participating in Project Lead the Way, a rigorous pre-engineering program that provides opportunities to take Advanced Placement and college preparatory classes, earn college credits, and gain work experience through internships.

Educators in the Frankford area developed the Bridges Magnet Program in response to a federal grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) in 2001. MSAP funds magnet school programs that are part of court-ordered or federally approved desegregation plans aimed at establishing or maintaining racially balanced schools.

According to Sienkiewicz, the neighborhood was selected in part because of its "borderline" racial demographics. Frankford has seen a dramatic shift in racial balance over the past decade. From 1990 to 2000, the White population decreased from 82 percent to 57 percent, while the percent of African Americans and Latinos in the neighborhood increased to 31 percent and 13 percent, respectively.

Where the neighborhood’s schools previously bused in students of color to create racial balance, they are now faced with the challenge of retaining White students to avoid becoming racially isolated.

"We were losing a lot of students to special [admissions] schools, to private schools, and to charter schools, where parents perceived that they were getting a better program," says Farlino. "We want families to know we can offer a viable option right here in the neighborhood."

Situated in a neighborhood with a history of tense race relations, a program seemingly focused at White families could set sparks flying. The reality of the program, however, is much richer – and more equitable – than just a black and white effort to desegregate schools.

As a federally funded program, the Bridges Magnet must accept all students, without regard to race, academic ability, or any other factor. The majority of students in the magnet program classes are students of color, although the percentage of White students is higher than in non-magnet classes. And the range of academic performance among students entering the program is wide.

In cases where there have been more applications than spots available, students have been chosen through a lottery.

Farlino says that, for her, there’s no reason why all magnet programs shouldn’t welcome all students, regardless of ability.

She adds, "I think we’ve already proven that this can be a really successful way to run a school and educate your students."

Are you involved with schools in the School District’s North Region?  This fall, the Notebook will be continuing its community outreach project in the North Region – let us know what you’re up to!  Contact Amy Rhodes at amyr@thenotebook.org or 215-951-0330 x160.  

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