Irenee Beattie: Magnet schools logical alternative for Merced

April 9, 2013 

Merced faces sweeping changes to its public elementary and middle schools because of overcrowding in some K-5 schools and underenrollment in others. To address this, the Merced City School District proposes moving sixth graders out of middle schools and into elementary schools (creating K-6 and 7-8 grade schools) as well as redrawing boundaries for elementary school attendance.

Based on my expertise as someone who studies schools and educational inequality, I think these changes are unlikely to be effective. Instead, the district should develop public magnet schools in underused schools. Magnet schools offer thematic instruction, such as Spanish bilingual or science, technology, engineering and math focused programs. Students who live nearby attend magnet schools along with children who live in other parts of the district whose families voluntarily select attendance through a lottery system.

Our first consideration should be whether the proposed policies will improve the excellence and equity of our schools, while easing overcrowding. Research questions whether moving sixth graders to elementary schools and redrawing boundaries will achieve these goals. Students do better academically and socially when they attend K-8 rather than middle schools, but evidence on moving sixth graders to elementary schools is inconclusive.

Further, experts on redrawing school boundaries caution that it is like "crossing a minefield" because it is often divisive to communities. Not only are property values affected by school boundary changes, but new boundaries can increase levels of school segregation by race, ethnicity and social class. This is because families with the most resources find other means to attend desired public schools, or opt out and attend private schools. This is already happening in our community: newer neighborhoods in the northwest part of town are districted to attend schools in south Merced, yet few of those children do so.

Magnet schools are a better alternative. There is substantial statistical and case study evidence that magnet schools can improve student learning and behavior, enhance diversity, as well as ease overcrowding.

A Spanish-bilingual magnet school in Tucson, Ariz., draws students from the local neighborhood, made up mostly of Mexican immigrant families, along with non-native-speaking families from around the city. They even offer Spanish classes at night for parents! STEM-focused magnet schools (such as one recently implemented in Turlock) improve test scores and behavioral outcomes and develop greater student interest in STEM fields. Increasing demands for a technologically advanced and multilingual work force make these types of schools exceptionally beneficial for student outcomes.

In addition to helping individual students, magnet schools can also benefit the broader community. Magnet schools increase parental involvement in and satisfaction with schools and enhance teacher autonomy. This increases what researchers call social capital, or relationships of trust and information channels in schools that are key for student success and teacher satisfaction. This benefits not only the kids whose parents are active in the school, but also their classmates, teachers, administrators and the community as a whole.

Thematic magnet schools can attract additional funding from foundations and government entities, particularly in a community such as ours with relatively high poverty and low educational attainment. Magnet schools could also serve as hubs for partnerships between Merced College, UC Merced, and the public schools that harness the expertise of relevant researchers along with the volunteerism of area college students.

The solutions proposed by MCSD to ease overcrowding do not address the underlying sources of the problem. Further, the district already owns property and hopes to build an elementary school in the north, so boundaries will have to be redrawn again soon. Voluntary programs, such as magnet schools, will be more effective at balancing school populations because they will improve excellence and equity. At the very least, the evidence suggests it is worth seriously discussing. Local parents who recently (though unsuccessfully) lobbied to create a charter school illustrate the strong interest in additional educational options.

Members of the community should get involved in this process. The Board of Education has scheduled a public forum today at 6 p.m. at Rivera Middle School, 945 Buena Vista Drive, to discuss the staff proposals. You should attend to learn more and voice your opinions. You can also write letters to board members or to the newspaper. There is also a Facebook page, Merced Families for Magnet Schools, where interested parties can continue this conversation.

This is a unique window of opportunity to explore evidence-based solutions for Merced schools that will address short-term problems, such as overcrowding, along with long-term ones, such as excellence and equity. We should all be paying attention and making our voices heard.

Beattie is an assistant professor of sociology at UC Merced.

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