Finding ways to reduce socioeconomic imbalances at magnet schools, while also looking into the need to call some schools magnets when they’re simply theme schools, is part of recent work of board members in the San Mateo-Foster City Elementary School District.
The board recently evaluated the success of the district’s magnet programs through various criteria, including if the programs’ socioeconomic profile was similar to the district’s makeup, academic performance trends, the magnet’s ability to attract and maintain student enrollment, ability to be financially successful and that it’s equally accessible to all district students, according to district policy.
It really doesn’t make sense to evaluate some of these magnet schools based on the magnet criteria since some are more like theme schools, said Trustee Lory Lorimer Lawson.
“I struggle with when we have themed schools that are not true magnets,” Lawson said. “I think it perpetuates the same things we’re talking about. We have schools that are magnets that haven’t had the opportunity to operate as a magnet. Part of my challenge is I’ve often said when you can have an educational leader on a site bringing in one theme, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Magnet schools are intended to reduce socioeconomic imbalance within the district, provide school choice with varied learning environments, develop innovative methods and practices, balance enrollment numbers and increase teaching capacity through specialized professional development, according to board policy. There are various magnets in the district — North Shoreview Montessori, Bayside STEM Academy, Fiesta Gardens Spanish-English Immersion, George Hall Accelerated/Project-Based Learning, Horrall Visual and Performing Arts and Technology Integration, Parkside Montessori Program at Parkside Elementary, San Mateo Park Math and Science, Borel and Sunnybrae’s International Baccalaureate program. Next school year, Parkside will move to a STEAM program.
“Do we change our magnet policy to talk about true magnets versus magnet themes?” said board President Colleen Sullivan. “How do we evaluate each program?”
Meanwhile, Trustee Chelsea Bonini noted that the same kids are at Bayside STEM Academy from before it became a science, technology, engineering and math magnet.
“We can’t evaluate them along the same criteria,” she said.
The subgroups are still struggling at Bayside, Superintendent Cynthia Simms said. Until there are some changes academically, Bayside won’t be attracting others from outside the neighborhood, she said.
“It’s something we’re working specifically on,” she said. “The subgroups aren’t making the progress we’d like. It’s not been for lack of good intentions. They’ve been trying different programs, but in some cases the programs haven’t been focused or targeted.”
Still, math support classes next school year will make a big difference, said Mary Kay Going, assistant superintendent of educational services.
Bonini also has concerns about calling Horrall Elementary, which will likely go through a rebranding, name change and switch to focusing on literacy and digital arts this coming year, a magnet school. Possible new names for the school include Poplar Elementary and LEAD Elementary, with the board expressing preference for the latter. The school has even garnered the nickname “Horrible Horrall,” said Horrall Principal Pattie Dullea. If the change went forward, the school would dedicate the library to former district superintendent Albion Horrall, whose namesake was given to the school.
“I have questions about how magnetic Horrall is going to be,” Bonini said. “I’m worried the costs will be much higher (for this school) and that we haven’t looked to our district to see how interested they are in this. I do think we should focus on Horrall — it’s our most challenged school; I just don’t know if magnets are the right place to lump it.”
Bonini noted it can be a theme, but she just really questions whether people are going to choose to go there. Lawson noted there are have been times when the district has turned out focus to a particular school and really done additional support for the school.
“I don’t know that it’s (Horrall) going to draw other people, but if we can meet the needs of the kids of the school, the community would benefit,” Lawson said.
The district could do a districtwide survey on if digital arts programming to see if it’d be an attractive option, said Simms. For Sullivan, the school has never really jelled, but she’d like to give it a chance.
In terms of equity across the schools, the district’s committee on philanthropy and equity has done research on things such as programming, facilities, volunteer hours at the schools and money raised for the schools. It’s going to be a difficult conversation on deciding whether to bring money from one school to another. Additionally, the board would like to explore adding bus routes so more students can go to other schools across the district, but each new route costs upwards of $75,000.
“The costs are just different — it looks like an inequity, but some schools will get more than others because the programmatic needs are different,” Simms said.
In terms of keeping the magnet schools’ makeups similar to the makeup of the district, College Park is not fulfilling that goal.
Lawson said she’d like to see if the board could add something into the magnets’ lottery systems to address the inequity goals. Board Vice President Audrey Ng suggested looking at home addresses and weighing that a little more in school lotteries. She noted that choosing schools is generally a conversation of those who are affluent. Sullivan agreed not all magnets are living up to their equity goals.
“For College Park, if we are talking about criteria for lower socioeconomic balance, then we’re not achieving that with 17 percent socioeconomically disadvantaged students,” Sullivan said. “Something as a board I would like us to be aware of is how to get more into balance with the rest of the district.”
Schools such as Sunnybrae might need some help improving their academic records, Sullivan said. Going said Sunnybrae is one of the schools that’s going to benefit from the early literacy movement.
“This school worries me with its academic success,” she said. “This is one of those programs I’m not sure about at all — [international baccalaureate] — because we don’t really see the draw. … If it’s growing only the same amount as anybody else, and we’re still not seeing IB push or draw students or if there’s not a bump up of the academics, maybe that needs to be looked at.”
The International Baccalaureate Organization is international educational foundation that offers four educational programs for children aged 3–19.
The struggle then becomes, Lawson said, if what Sunnybrae really need is literacy support, then what is the district doing sending money off to IB people?
“Then why don’t we just spend the money on what we really need?” she said. “IB gives valuable exposure to kids who maybe haven’t had that opportunity at home.”
Sullivan noted Borel, an IB school, shouldn’t be considered a magnet. It was a magnet to get funding to continue Sunnybrae’s path, she said. Sullivan would like to see the magnet school policy tweaked. Simms noted that IB does get kids to think systematically and she’d like Sunnybrae to stay true to that and add a literacy piece.
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