Magnet school attracts attention once again
Trenton may steer part of $7.6M toward idea
By Meir Rinde
Oct. 3, 2010
TRENTON — If Lisa Kasabach were to give up on the idea of school reform, you could hardly blame her.
A parent and former school board member, Kasabach has tried several times to create alternatives to Trenton’s troubled public schools. In 2004, she organized an effort to create a magnet school, but the board shot it down. Later, the state rejected her group’s charter school proposal. A small private school she helped open last year closed after a few months.
But when she heard that Superintendent Rodney Lofton last week proposed creating a magnet school in Trenton, she once again voiced her long-standing support for the idea, even as she expressed caution born of experience.
“Magnet schools have been proven to help, particularly in urban areas where you need an alternative to get people excited. If it’s parent-driven, it will be even more successful. People need to give it a chance,” she said. “My concern is that people will say ‘I don’t even want to give it a try.’“
At the moment, Lofton’s proposal is little more than a concept, one of many possible ways to spend $7.6 million in federal funding that Trenton was awarded last month. He has also suggested spending some of the money on the district’s literacy program, and he said he will organize a staff task force to come up with more ideas.
But the superintendent and the school board have the authority to create or reconfigure schools quickly if they want, as demonstrated by the recent, last-minute decision to reopen Stokes School with a greater focus on special education. And among those who understand how a magnet school works, the idea of a themed campus open to all students has a powerful attraction.
“We need to have programs that give children other choices in the district,” Lofton said in an interview last week. “We need to begin to grow the system to give parents choice.”
In other words, Trenton needs to create more schools that stand out from the sea of bad news about low test scores and violence, and to reverse the trend of families fleeing for charter, parochial and private schools -- or leaving town, Kasabach said.
“A lot of parents are sitting at their dining room tables and asking, are we going to move or put our children in the public schools?” said Kasabach, who home-schooled her children before finally enrolling them in a private school in Princeton this year. “Hundreds of people are doing this, because there’s a sense the public schools are inadequate.”
The magnet model varies, but typically, a school will offer specialized classes in an area such as performing arts, medical science, or vocational skills, and allow students citywide to enter a lottery to attend.
Such a school could be a state-authorized charter school -- which is publicly funded but operates independently -- but it could also be a regular public school under the board’s authority. Lofton noted that New York and some other cities have created hybrid schools. In such cases, an outside organization runs a charter-like school within the district.
In New Jersey, county magnet schools that draw students from a wide geographic area have been highly successful. The New York Times reported last year that such schools now occupy most of the top spots in state rankings by SAT scores and on the state’s annual School Report Cards.
“Magnet schools are the way to go,” said Christine Donahue, a former Trenton council candidate who advocated magnets during her campaign. “The reasons are very simple -- it’s because everybody learns differently and we have such a diverse population in Trenton. We can’t have a cookie-cutter educational system any more.”
City and school officials have for decades floated the idea of creating magnet schools to improve education and attract families to Trenton. Former Mayor Douglas Palmer repeatedly pushed for them during his tenure, and he remains an advocate.
Palmer said one possibility he had envisioned was a competitive-admission school for the city’s brightest students, an idea Kasabach rejected. But both said that getting parents and the community involved in creating the school is a key requirement, whatever the final model.
“The superintendent should at least have discussions with the city on what they would like to see in a magnet school and look at different models, so they could buy in,” Palmer said. “I would put together a blue ribbon committee charged with looking at different models.”
A magnet school “goes outside of education and reaches into the community,” Donahue said. “It’s looking for functional skills in the community to bring into the school. For example, for auto mechanics, it would be looking for skilled mechanics in the community or job opportunities in the community where people could work.”
Yet the notion of creating a school with specialized classes for a select few has also met fierce opposition. When the school board declined to act on Kasabach’s proposal in 2004, activist Emerson Simmons said the idea seemed to favor the “privileged” and raised the racially charged notion of “separate but equal.” Simmons could not be reached for comment Friday.
“It became a black-white thing, or a have-have not, elite thing,” Palmer said. “I don’t agree, but people said, ‘Oh, this is so white folks can keep their kids in the school system.’ I didn’t buy that. There were some black parents who were involved, too. It just deteriorated from there.”
The board in 2004 also heard from Joseph Youngblood, executive director of Thomas Edison State College’s John S. Watson Institute for Public Policy. Youngblood said magnet schools are expensive and have had a mixed record on student achievement and racial integration.
“The dynamics at the time of the board, and maybe the superintendent, were such that it wasn’t going to happen,” said Kasabach, who is white. “Racial issues were paramount throughout the discussion, which is extremely unfortunate, because it’s the absolute opposite of what we were about, and our group was diverse.”
Then-superintendent James Lytle supported Kasabach’s idea and even provided some of the impetus for her and other parents to start brainstorming ideas for a different kind of school, she recalled. But Lytle gave up on the magnet school proposal after the board showed little interest.
Whether Lofton chooses to pursue a magnet remains to be seen. He has come under intense attack lately from the teachers union and other groups on a wide range of issues. Simmons and parent Coreen Grooms have accused the district of failing to involve parents in decisions on how to spend federal Title I funds, and they were among protesters at a board meeting Monday calling for his dismissal.
In such an environment, it could be difficult for the superintendent to win board support for an idea that has previously been a political hot potato. Everybody wants to improve education, but as Kasabach found out, a push for change can bring a powerful pushback.
“You could spend an enormous amount of time and energy, and lo and behold, people could just respond in such a disappointing way,” she said. “It was such a shame.”
Article also available on NJ.com.
Copyright © The Times of Trenton 2010