Magnet schools are public schools that offer a specific theme or curriculum for students. Learn more about magnet programs and if it is the right option for your children.

Advertisement

In many communities, the neighborhood school is no longer the only public choice for families. With a special focus on a specific theme or curriculum—from science and math to performing arts or languages—magnet schools are public schools that offer an attractive option for parents and students.

An image of students doing a scientific experiment in a classroom.
Credit: Getty Images.

Established in the 1970s as a tool to desegregate schools by race and often mandated by court order, magnet schools were originally designed to attract children from white and Black neighborhoods to ensure students from both communities were learning together. Today, those parameters have been expanded to not just Black and white students, but other racial, ethnic, and diverse socioeconomic groups too.

"The idea was to draw parents from across a broad geographical area within a school district," says Claire Smrekar, Ph.D., an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University and expert on school choice.

But for parents, as school districts talk about magnet school lotteries, pathways, and themes, the options can get confusing. Here are six things parents should know about magnet schools.

How Common Are Magnet Schools?

A 2017 report from Magnet Schools of America lists more than 4,340 magnet schools across the country. Some 51 percent were elementary schools, another 18 percent were middle schools, and 31 percent were high schools. One out of every 15 public school students attends a magnet school.

How Are Students Admitted to Magnet Schools?

Students are typically admitted based on a lottery that gives preference to certain categories, often the geographical area where the student lives or whether a sibling already attends the school, Dr. Smrekar says. At about 25 percent of magnet schools, according to the magnet school report, a student's achievement, such as their status as academically gifted, is considered for admission.

What Are Magnet School Themes and Pathways?

Common magnet school themes are science, technology, engineering, and math, also called STEM; performing arts; International Baccalaureate; gifted and talented; and world languages, according to the magnet school report. Students still learn math, English, science, and social studies at these schools, but they can take advantage of electives where they build on their own particular interests based on the theme.

School districts typically offer themed pathways so students can continue at a STEM or foreign language-themed magnet schools from kindergarten to twelfth grade. Often, students in the same magnet pathway are guaranteed admission to the next school as they age into middle or high school, Dr. Smrekar explains. "It gives you peace of mind because you don't have to go through the lottery again," she says. But, there's a downside, she noted: Your kindergartener might have preferred the STEM school but, as they get older, STEM may no longer be a primary interest.

Do All Students Have Access to Magnet Schools?

While magnet schools are designed to diversify school populations, they aren't accessible to all children. Transportation is one barrier, Dr. Smrekar says. In some cases, districts might not offer bus service to and from a student's home and magnet school. In other cases, students might be dropped off at a central bus stop that's miles from a student's home and have nobody to pick them up.

Selection criteria that gives preference to academic performance also could knock out children who have experienced trauma or lived in extreme poverty and haven't been able to perform well at school because of those hardships, says Valerie I. Harrison, Ph.D., co-author of Do Right By Me: Learning to Raise Black Children in White Spaces and one-time magnet school student. Parents working multiple jobs may not have the ability to tour magnet schools in their district. And families without access to the internet might have no way to enter the lottery.

Every parent, Dr. Harrison says, should make sure that schools wrap additional supports around students who, through no fault of their own, don't have the resources to assess their school options.

What Should Parents Look For When They're Considering a Magnet Program?

Dr. Smrekar encourages parents to consider the diversity and sense of community within a school. Find out if teacher turnover is high and how students perform on tests and other assessments. As you tour the school, look for happy, engaged students. "Is it alive?" Dr. Smrekar says.

At the same time, parents should ask school leaders how they support and sustain the magnet theme, she adds. Do they have the funding to purchase robotics equipment for the STEM school or specialized math games for the Montessori program? Do teachers get regular access to professional development to boost their ability to teach the magnet theme?

Are Magnet Schools Working?

It's a work in progress, Dr. Smrekar says. "The good fight is still being waged, and it's tough. But there are ways to attract and hold families across a whole spectrum of diverse categories," she says. "Magnet schools are 50 years old, and the interest and investment continues, but in varying degrees of success in terms of that socioeconomic diversity."