There are a wide variety of educational choices and opportunities for parents and students in the Alachua County Public Schools system. Magnet schools contribute to the choices.
Those who wish to attend a magnet school or a magnet program can apply with transportation provided by the school district. The League of Women Voters of Florida, a non-partisan organization, supports free public education with high standards and quality education for all.
Historically, the concept of magnet schools dates to the 1970s, when it emerged as a way to allow for more diversity in classrooms. The idea was to bring together students from different backgrounds and neighborhoods who shared a common interest and excelled in certain areas.
Children who attend magnet schools have an opportunity to learn alongside students from a wide variety of cultures and backgrounds. Diversity promotes empathy, collaboration and respect inside and outside the classroom. It teaches students to appreciate the different backgrounds of the other students.
Magnet programs focus on special areas of study within a school. They can be academic, such as the International Baccalaureate (I.B.) program at Eastside High School, or career technology programs such as the Academy of Health Professions at Gainesville High School.
While students in the academic magnet programs are generally bound for college and seek coursework for which they can earn college credit, there are 15 other magnet programs in Alachua County Public Schools that prepare students to enter the work force in careers soon after high school graduation. In those programs, students graduate with certification in their area of study.
With the start of the new school year, Terwilliger and Metcalfe elementary schools have been designated whole school magnets, each with a unique focus on learning.
Terwilliger Elementary School has become a Dual Language Immersion Magnet beginning with students enrolling in kindergarten this year and each year until eventually the entire grades K-5 will become part of the program of study. Research shows that students in this program attain high cognitive dexterity, social awareness and increased communication skills.
The Metcalfe Elementary magnet program focuses on science, technology, engineering, art and math (STEAM). This program is designed to teach students innovation, teamwork and critical thinking, all skills needed for the 21st century.
Altogether, Alachua County Public Schools offers 27 unique opportunities for learning through their magnet schools and programs. There are six elementary, four middle school and two high school academic magnets. Additionally, there are 15 career technology magnets at various high schools.
So, what are some of the drawbacks to whole school and individual program magnets? Magnet schools often have a lower student-to-teacher ratio, which can drive up staffing costs.
Also, finding teachers who have the specialization to teach in these programs is a challenge and the current teacher shortage adds to that. Teachers may require additional training and can come from fields outside of regular teacher education certification. Those teachers must go through alternate certification that can be both lengthy and costly.
Further, the added cost for transportation of all magnet students in Alachua County is $360,000 annually. Students may spend additional time on buses getting to and from school since their school of choice may not be close to home. Magnet schools are budgeted from the One Mil for Schools tax.
Academic magnet programs have been criticized for not attaining diversity. In September 2017, Alachua County Public Schools formed the Office of Equity and Outreach. Efforts to help diversify the magnet programs were made by placing 25% of applications in a lottery pool. However, the lottery didn't have the desired impact on diversity.
A new approach is now in place that works on recruitment and placement of students in more advanced classes at an earlier age. This, in turn, will better prepare students in the hope that academic magnet programs will become more diversified.
Currently, even if a student isn't enrolled full time in a magnet program, a student who excels in a specific academic area can take a single class in the academic magnets and not enroll in the entire program.
In addition to neighborhood schools, public magnet schools provide choices to the students of Alachua County.
Karen McCann is the chair of the Education Committee of the League of Women Voters of Alachua County and Janice Garry is president of the group.
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This article originally appeared on The Gainesville Sun: Karen McCann, Janice Garry: Alachua County magnet programs offer choices