May 25 — 11:00 pm, 2005

Magnets for some, enrichment for all

Vallas promises dozens of accelerated school options for K-8 students. Past magnet initiatives have raised equity issues.

Promising “high achievement academic opportunities” to elementary public school students in every region of the city, the Philadelphia School District has unveiled plans this spring for a three-tiered approach to providing “accelerated options” for its K-8 students.

Fifty schools are to be converted into magnet “High Achievement Academies” by fall; three selective magnet “High Achievement Centers” are planned for fall 2006; and new enrichment programs open to all K-8 students are in the works for this summer and in the fall through extended day and Saturday programs.

“We plan to accelerate the development of our younger students,” CEO Paul Vallas explained. “And our goal is to have at least 15 percent of the District’s students enrolled in high-achievement programs by 2008.”

Vallas predicted that the program will have “a transforming effect on the District,” adding, “When you seed schools with programs of excellence, there are some kids who will improve far beyond the proficiency level.”

Nationally, magnet programs are often criticized for skimming students who are the system’s “cream of the crop” from neighborhood schools, leaving those schools with an even greater concentration of disadvantaged students and the ones most likely to exhibit serious academic and behavioral struggles. In the 1990s, District magnet programs were under scrutiny in the School District’s desegregation court case, with Commonwealth Court Judge Doris Smith-Ribner finding underrepresentation of African American and Latino students in such schools.

And so some observers are skeptical about whether the benefits of the new programs will be equitably shared.

Vallas sees the initiative as a dramatic expansion of options for students that will help stem the exodus of students from Philadelphia public schools. The magnet initiatives, targeted for every region, will encompass one-third of the District’s K-8 schools.

“A rising tide lifts all boats,” he commented.

“The things that make the schools more attractive for the people with the economic means to go somewhere else are the same things that are going to make the schools better for children who don’t have those choices,” he stated.

Magnets and tracking

Magnet schools were popularized in the 1970s and 1980s as a desegregation instrument that could attract students “like a magnet” from outside neighborhoods because of the schools’ unique themes and academic thrusts.

But because of admissions criteria or simply the fact that only some students seek them out, magnet schools do represent a type of “tracking” of students – sorting of students into different academic paths based on perceived ability or motivation.

“A lot of studies demonstrate that tracking creates a downward spiral for all but the very top track of students,” former School District equity official Katherine Conner pointed out, “because those who are not in the top track experience lots of lower expectations from their teachers, which translates into less challenging content, less time for students to answer, and less specific feedback.”

While noting that his organization, Philadelphia Student Union, does not have an official position on magnet schools, executive director Eric Braxton commented, “We’ve been concerned for a long time that the focus on magnet schools doesn’t do anything about improving the quality of education for all students.”

Currently, most of the District’s 30 “magnet” schools or schools with selective admissions criteria are high schools.

Research on magnet high schools by University of Pennsylvania professor Ruth Curran Neild found that while Philadelphia’s magnet high schools themselves were racially diverse, the movement of students did result in a greater degree of racial isolation and economic segregation in most neighborhood high schools.

In Philadelphia, the impact of tracking picks up as students transition into the middle years, and many students seek out magnet middle schools such as Masterman. By dramatically expanding its magnet elementary school program, the District’s initiative creates the prospect of more tracking at an earlier point in students’ lives.

Admissions criteria

District officials say selective admissions criteria will be instituted only at the three new K-8 “High Achievement Centers,” which will focus on mathematics and science, fine and performing arts, and aeronautics and aerospace.

These three schools will serve students from the surrounding neighborhoods, selected “based on multiple criteria, including past academic performance, creativity, and demonstrated interest, talent and commitment,” and also will be open to “students from across the city as space is available,” according to a District description of the program.

Vallas said the admissions policies currently in place at each of the 50 Academy schools – whether neighborhood enrollment, lottery, or selective admissions criteria – will for now remain unchanged.

The 50 “High Achievement Academies” serving elementary and middle grade students will each reflect one of five different models:

  • 15 Emerging Scholars schools: This model, created by the District, allows teachers to observe best practices, are centered on a student’s unique strengths, and driven by the District’s core curriculum. It will utilize community partnerships and incorporate a number of enrichment programs.

  • 10 International Baccalaureate schools: These schools provide an international focus to students, centered on students’ relationships to their own national identity and the cultural traditions of others. Students begin studying a foreign language by age 7.

  • 10 Montessori schools: With teachers guiding student “research and exploration,” Montessori children learn from the environment and each other. Students design contracts to balance work and learn time management and character education.

  • 10 SpringBoard schools: A model designed by the College Board around its “Standards for College Success,” these schools stress math, reading, and writing standards to prepare for participation in college preparatory Advanced Placement programs.

  • Five University Lab schools: Lab schools tap the academic resources of university partners. They differ from current university partnership schools in offering curriculum beyond the core subject matter.

The first 13 host schools for Emerging Scholars programs were announced in March. Vallas said he strategically placed them in schools already targeted for desegregation, thereby allowing the District to take advantage of existing busing routes. Emerging Scholars schools were also selected on the basis of their fitness to meet program demands and on geographic location.

Elementary schools can apply to host an Academy using one of the other four models.

The schools selected for the Emerging Scholars program scored from slightly to substantially higher than the District average on PSSA math and reading tests.

While the Emerging Scholars schools do approximate the District’s geographic and racial diversity, a majority of the 13 schools have far fewer than the District’s average of low-income students – by 20 percentage points or more.

Kearny, with 80 percent of its students low-income, is the only one whose poverty rate approaches or exceeds the District average of 71 percent low-income.

Enrichment for all

Vallas said that starting this summer, all K-8 students will have a chance to benefit from the District’s $4 million afterschool, Saturday, and summertime “High Achievement Opportunities.”

The program consists of a one-hour academic program and a one-hour enrichment program, designed to prepare “academically average” students for higher-level math concepts; and an international, creative problem-solving program utilizing everything from mechanical building to literary interpretation, according to the District.

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