A Brief History of Magnet Schools

In the 1960's in the United States, some options to traditional public schools sprang up as a protest against racially segregated schools. The history of magnet schools is tied to the 1960's protest over school desegregation and the educational reform model of public school choice as a way to address educational inequity.

by Dr. Donald Waldrip

For more on the history of the Civil Rights Movement and the impact of magnet education, read the farewell address of MSA founder, Dr. Donald R. Waldrip at the 2000 Magnet Schools conference, Tucson, AZ

In 1974, the late, great Mario Fantini, who is responsible for some of the early research presented here, said that all meaningful reform of education was tied to the movement toward public schools of choice. Twenty-four years later, his statement still rings true. Although school systems operate all over the world, what we really need today is a system of schools – unique schools. Magnet schools are based on the premise that all students do not learn in the same ways, that if we find a unifying theme or a different organizational structure for students of similar interest, those students will learn more in all areas. In other words, if a magnet school voluntarily attracts students and teachers, it will succeed because, more than for any other reason, those in attendance want to be there. They will have chosen that school. When a parent chooses a school for his or her young child, that school is more likely to succeed for that child than would one to which that child was assigned.

We have always had options for children and parents though. Originally, parents with the financial means could send their children to parochial (church) schools, to private tutors, or to private schools. If wealthy enough, they could send their children away to dormitory schools – then called private academies – from age eight to eighteen. We still have those options for wealthy Americans, and many still choose these options, but some who can afford to send their children to any school instead choose magnet schools, which are public schools and cost nothing to attend.

During the 1960’s, some of these options in the private sector responded to the growing aspirations of countercultures or groups with new and different life styles. For the most part, these schools were freer in form and substance than the public schools. Some went even so far as to allow the learner complete charge of his or her own learning; i.e. what is learned, when, where, why, how, and with whom.

The number of these private-sector schools declined significantly in the 1970’s, largely because of limited resources. Romantic, dedicated teachers working round-the-clock for substandard wages were trying to run schools on very little money. If these short-lived schools served a purpose, it was to show that other ways of educating learners were possible.

In the United States during the 1960’s, some options to public schools sprang up as a protest against racially segregated schools. They emphasized the basic subjects of reading, writing, and arithmetic, but they also included the history of African Americans, what the civil rights movement was all about, and how schools could be tied to community needs. Some of these, called street academies, led to more permanent structures. Harlem Prep, for example, first funded by foundations, businesses, and industry, become one of the public schools of New York City.

Another development, based on intense interest in the British experience, was the so-called "open classroom," which was another response to rigidity of the public system. All of these trends brought to the attention of professional educators and other citizens the need for more variety in education, especially in public education.

About this time educational vouchers were first mentioned – for the most part by economists, not educators. Milton Friedman, for example, thought that education should be considered a part of the free marketplace with the learners and families as consumers. Mr. Friedman thought that having families shop around for the kind of school that best satisfied their tastes would result in increased options. Advocates also thought that this system of vouchers, that could be redeemed at any school, would help to equalize opportunities for the poor. The idea of vouchers originally applied to public schools only and had equity as a goal . Today vouchers apply to both public and private schools and are seen as a hazard to equality of opportunity between the "haves and havenots" because we know that public schools must accept all students. (With magnets, however, students may find the most acceptable place in which to receive an education.) With federal government support, many planning grants were made to public schools. At least one went beyond planning to implementation – Alum Rock, California. This system of public vouchers started in the early seventies.

In the late 1960’s, school districts across America were being torn apart by resistance to forced desegregation of the schools. Many parents would move to a suburban district to keep from having their children bused to school away from the neighborhood. Others would choose private education for their children. School administrators and boards of education began to try to find a volunteer way to reduce racial isolation.

The first school designed to reduce racial isolation by offering a choice to parents was an elementary school in Tacoma, Washington, called McCarver. This was in 1968. In 1969, Trotter Elementary School, in the Boston, Massachusetts system, opened for the same reasons. Both of these first attempts offered a different organizational pattern. They guaranteed continuous progress education, in which students would progress at their own rates. Neither of these schools was called a magnet; rather they were referred to as "alternatives."

In 1970, with the assistance of $6 million from the federal government, Minneapolis, Minnesota, mounted an alternative experiment in the southeast section of the city. This district opened four elementary schools and one high school with different organizational designs. Of the four elementary schools, the least structured was referred to as "free," in which the students directed their own education. The second type was called "open," and had an informal classroom design. The third was "continuous progress," and the fourth a traditional approach, which Minneapolis called "contemporary." All four were successful. Why? More than likely because the teachers and students wanted to be there, and the parents of those students had chosen the schools for their own children.

Following the pattern established in Minneapolis, Haaren High School in New York City, with the assistance of the Urban Coalition, broke into smaller units with more personalized instruction. Also following the pattern established in the Minneapolis elementary schools, Berkeley, California, embarked on a full-scale alternative schools program, featuring basic skills centers, environmentally-oriented programs, independent contract curriculum with businesses, and more. The word magnet was still not being used, although these programs looked much like schools that are called magnets today.

Dallas, Texas, opened the first "super" high school in 1971. Designed around the concept of career strands, skyline High School attracted students of all kinds – rich, poor, Hispanic, African American, Asian, White – from all over the city. It even offered adult classes in the evenings. In fact the school rarely closed its doors. Some students came for a full-day program; others came for part-time; still others came after school.

It was about this time that Houston, Texas, in describing the effect of its Performing and Visual Arts School, said that it worked like a "magnet" in attracting students. The word appeared to catch on. By 1975 the term was being used to describe types of fiscal assistance contemplated by the federal government.

In 1973, Cincinnati opened a wide range of options, among them, the first Montessori school in the public sector and the first foreign language schools beginning in the primary grades. By 1980 most major cities had systems of magnets, but it was the federal courts that caused the greatest surge in magnet education.

Until the early seventies, federal district courts had routinely ordered school systems to mandatorily racially desegregate themselves. In declining to approve a multiple district solution to segregation in Detroit, the courts did approve special enrichment programs to help to overcome the effects of "past discrimination." Following this decision, almost every court order that mandated that schools desegregate had a voluntary component. This voluntary component became known as magnet schools. The courts discovered that by using a carrot instead of a stick more desegregation could take place, and, at the same time, the quality of education would improve.

Today magnet schools are still used to reduce racial isolation, but, they are more and more considered superior options within the public sector for all students, even in districts of primarily one race.

What have we learned?

that all students do not learn in the same ways; that if we take advantage of a student’s interest and aptitude, that student will do better in subjects unrelated to his/her reasons for choosing the school; that choice itself will result in improved satisfaction that translates into better achievement; that every child can learn and it is our job to offer enough options so that parents of all children (or students themselves) will have the opportunity to choose the programs best suited to them.

Emerson said that there are as many ways to God as there are people. We in magnet education believe that there are as many ways to a quality education as there are children and youth. It is up to us as educators to design those programs that will make the match between program and learner as effective as possible.