Five years ago, Lawrence Township began a rare experiment, becoming one of the first districts in the nation to convert all of its elementary schools into magnet schools.
The program won a $11.8 million federal grant, and it was highlighted in the national magazine Education Week.
But with the money now spent and the district reshaped, few parents are actively exercising choice—at most schools, 90 percent of students come from the surrounding neighborhood.
That perplexes Claire Smrekar, who has been researching magnets for the past 25 years.
“In many ways this is a magnet school program in name only,” she said.
A professor at Vanderbilt University, Smrekar said that the Lawrence program is different because most magnet schools aim to bring in students from outside their locality.
But that isn’t the primary goal in Lawrence Township. Instead, district leaders simply hoped the program would promote choice options for families.
So what's the impact after five years?
Test scores are up, but the township’s passing rates haven't grown significantly faster than the statewide averages. Township schools also are no more integrated than they were before the transition, as sometimes results from magnet programs. Part of the reason might be connected to the small numbers of parents actually choosing schools outside of their neighborhoods.
Even so, many district leaders are strong proponents of the magnets. Although the grant money has run out, they plan to sustain the program—bearing any upkeep costs themselves.
Superintendent Shawn Smith, who joined the district after the program began, is glad that every school has a magnet focus and that the opportunities they offer are not restricted to a select group of students.
“We’re still a community school district,” he said. “We still try and keep people in their geographical area, but with the magnet flavor.”
Choices to match student interests
Sometimes, the impulse to dance is too strong for sixth-grader Jaylie James to resist.
“I get in trouble for dancing in the grocery store when the music is playing,” said Jaylie, 12.
Most kids who want to learn to dance take classes or practice at home after school. But as a student at Harrison Hill Elementary, an arts magnet, Jaylie has dance class three days a week.
Although Jaylie loves dance, she landed in the arts magnet by luck, she said. Like the vast majority of Lawrence students, she attends the elementary school closest to her home.
The district assigns students to neighborhood magnet schools by zone. Students automatically have a place a nearby magnet, but if they want to attend a different school, they must apply for a transfer.
The federal grant money, through the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, covered the costs of building the new system. Over four years, federal tax dollars helped pay for remodeling of schools, staff training and a coordinator for the program.
Now, to keep the magnets going, the district will have to do it without that extra money. Although district officials expect the ongoing costs to be minimal, they’ve already cut the grant coordinator position.
Some parents have found the magnet-themed schools to fit well with their children's interests.
When it came time for Harrison Hill Principal Natalie Stewart’s daughter to go to school, she toured magnets around the district and chose an environmental science school because she fell in love with the outdoor space and chickens, Stewart said.
“As a parent, because I have kids in Lawrence Township, I love the idea of letting your kids follow their passion early,” she said. “I think that’s really exciting as a parent to know that you have choice.”
But most parents simply send their children to the school in the zones where they live. With the exception of the gifted program and Forest Glen Elementary, a Spanish immersion school, nine out of every 10 Lawrence students attend the school in their zone, according to district officials.
That’s not enough movement to suggest parents are actively making decisions about where they send their kids to school, Smrekar said.
“That’s not amplifying choice,” she said. “It’s simply an acceptance of zoned schools.”
In fact, the lack of movement among schools is not terribly surprising to Smrekar or district officials.
It takes substantial effort for districts to persuade parents to participate in magnets, Smrekar said, from outreach to minority communities to creating a single application process for all magnets — including the one that a child is zoned into.
“What parents really want is a quality school that is safe and in close proximity to their home,” she said.
Diversity waned after magnet shift
Magnet schools first became popular as part of the Civil Rights push of the 1960s and 1970s primarily as a way to integrate schools. The idea was usually to create high-quality schools with interesting curricula that would attract black and white students to attend class together.
While that wasn’t the purpose of the Lawrence Township program, the district didn’t expect it to change the racial balance that was generally good in most schools.
But in some cases, schools are less diverse now than before the program.
“All of our schools are pretty diverse naturally,” said Carol Helmus, who was a school board member when the program began and is now president of the board. “We didn’t want to racially isolate kids.”
To convert the district to magnet schools, the township was split in two. A set of magnets with the same themes were placed on both the east and west sides of the township.
Administrators configured the two halves of the district to be demographically similar to try to maintain diverse schools, according to Pat Gerber, director of grants and programs for the district and one of the initial planners of the magnet conversion.
The township schools are relatively diverse—with an elementary population that’s about 40 percent black, 27 percent white and 24 percent Hispanic.
Even so, a few schools look strikingly different. Although some schools have become more diverse since the magnet program launched, others are even more segregated.
The starkest example of this phenomenon is Amy Beverland Elementary School, a communications magnet on the far northeast side of the township. The school has long served wealthier children and fewer black and Hispanic students than the district as a whole.
Before the magnet program, about 49 percent of Amy Beverland students were white, 9 percentage points higher than the district average. Thirty-nine percent came from families that were poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, 16 percentage points lower than districtwide. To qualify, a family of four must make less than $44,863 annually.
When the district reconfigured schools in 2010—creating magnet zones and moving sixth graders from middle schools down to elementary schools—the population at Amy Beverland changed, and it became even less like the other schools in Lawrence.
Now, 62 percent of students at Amy Beverland are white, up 13 percentage points and more than double the proportion of white students in the rest of the district. And just 21 percent of its students receive free or reduced-price lunch, less than a third of the rate districtwide and down 18 percentage points.
Contrast that picture with Winding Ridge Elementary, an arts magnet on the southeast side of the township where most students are black. Before the magnet program, 58 percent of students at Winding Ridge students were black, while just 38 percent were black districtwide. Sixty-eight percent of Winding Ridge’s students received free or reduced-price lunch, 13 percentage points higher than districtwide.
After Winding Ridge was zoned as a magnet school, it became even more out of line with the district averages. Now, 71 percent of students at the school are black, and just 6 percent are white. Nearly 85 percent of kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared to a district average of 66 percent of students.
There’s no indication the magnet program is causing schools to become more or less poor, or shift racially. But the zones around the now-magnet schools are not diverse. Because most students go to the school in their zone, the magnets aren’t integrating schools in homogeneous areas of the township by bringing in children from different racial or socioeconomic backgrounds.
The magnet program also don’t appear to have stemmed departure of white and wealthy students from the district. Over the last decade, the number of white students and students who pay full price for lunch has dropped every year.
Test scores up in math but not English
Improving student test scores was one of the primary goals of the initial grant. But the best evidence suggests only math scores have outpaced the state averages.
The township schools had big gains in math on ISTEP, particularly for black and Hispanic students, since 2010. But while Lawrence students improved on the English language arts test, they didn’t keep pace with statewide gains.
Across the township, math scores went up 11 percentage points between 2010 and 2014, the latest year for which data was available. The jump was fueled by dramatic gains for black and Hispanic students, with math passing rates growing by nearly 17 percentage points for both groups.
That far exceeds statewide gains during that period, which were 11 percentage points for black students and 10 percentage points for Hispanic students.
When it comes to English scores, gains in Lawrence were less impressive. A gain of nearly 5 percentage points districtwide roughly compared to the state average improvement of 6 percentage points over the same time period.
While some schools in the district are excelling, Lawrence also has three of the lowest scoring elementaries in the townships. And one elementary school earned a D on state accountability measures last year.
But the district argues the value of magnet programs goes beyond test scores. They can have a big effect, for example, on how students feel about school, said Gerber.
That’s certainly the case for some students, like Harrison Hill sixth-grader Ahmed Addison, 12. Dance is his favorite class, he said. Without it, school would be “mediocre, lame, boring,” he said.
Helping students feel a stronger connection to school was one of the primary goals of the program, Gerber said.
“The ideas was, if you’re a good thinker when you get out of sixth grade or out of eighth grade, out of high school, you’re ready to do anything you want in the world,” she said.
Magnet schools win rave reviews
The district’s administrators and school board members are enthusiastic about magnet schools.
The magnet program has helped improve schools throughout the district, said Helmus, the school board president, and it’s given parents the opportunity to choose what they value—whether that’s a local school or a school with a particular focus.
“Parents do have a say and can make choices that they feel are in the best interest of their children,” Helmus said.
She will continue to support the program as long as school staff and families like the magnets and schools are able to maintain commitment to their focus areas, she said.
Stewart, the Harrison Hill principal, said that having specialized areas of study can be a real benefit for students that struggle in math or reading.
“When you’re watching a play, you don’t know who the smartest kid is on stage,” she said. “By having all those avenues to perform you’re finding other ways for kids to stand out and be exceptional at something.”
And in a district where many students are poor, the magnet program creates opportunities that children might not get outside of school, said Harrison Hill dance and drama teacher Sarah Hoffman.
“Especially in a community that doesn’t get to go to dance class,” she said, “the fact that we brought dance class to them is a huge thing for them.”
Chalkbeat Indiana is a not-for-profit news site covering educational change in public schools.