In the past few years, Lorena Ludovici has witnessed major overhauls at Walker Middle School.
"There are new teachers, a new principal, and with the exception of a few teachers and administration personnel, what goes on in that school is completely different," Ludovici said.
Her eldest daughter, now a high school sophomore, attended the school before it adopted the academically rigorous International Baccalaureate program this year.
Now, her middle daughter, a sixth-grader, thrives in it.
A three-year $11 million federal grant helped the district add the program at Walker Middle as well as science magnets at Lockhart Elementary and Young Middle schools and single-gender academies at Franklin and Ferrell middle schools. The district also turned Roland Park into a kindergarten to eighth-grade school also with a science magnet.
Hillsborough now has 32 schools offering magnet programs, with some schools having more than one. At a time when charter and private schools are contending with regular public schools for students, district officials are aware of the heightened competition.
This year, the number of students enrolled in magnet programs jumped to 16,356 from 14,783 last year.
"If we are competitive, it means our students are learning and gaining. It doesn't matter where the child is going to school, we want the best for them," said Susan King, Hillsborough schools' supervisor of magnet programs. "Of course we would rather have them, that's why we are creating environments where our students are going to be academically successful."
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By revamping or implementing new magnets in some schools, district officials hope to diversify school offerings and "maximize facility capacities," King said.
Roland Park, Franklin, Young and Lockhart are considered "low-performing," according to the district's federal grant application.
All these schools failed to meet requirements under the No Child Left Behind Act, according to Florida Department of Education reports. However, schools like Walker received an A from the state last year; Ferrell, Franklin and Young received C's; and Roland Park and Lockhart received D's.
Every three years, district officials apply for federal grants that help strengthen the district's magnet choices, King said.
"We want to see if we are maximizing our facilities. If we are operating schools in urban areas and they are over capacity, and the ones in the suburbs are under, then we have to maximize capacity," she said. "We also want to refresh things. Lockhart was a performing arts magnet, but we already have two performing arts schools."
Though the single-gender academies at Franklin and Ferrell received a lot of attention, district officials hope that several new magnet programs at Walker, Lockhart and Young can help boost enrollment as well.
It appears to be working at Walker.
Before deciding to offer the IB Middle Years Program, which features a curriculum with a global spin, the school had about 600 students, principal Anthony Jones said. This year, the school has about 750 students.
Students are selected to attend magnets in elementary and middle schools through a lottery, and Jones said the school has more applicants than they have spots. Though the number is still below the school's capacity of 900 students, Jones said he is confident that they will hit that figure in the coming years.
"We anticipate that (enrollment) going up each year," he said. "We do think that the magnet program will increase enrollment, and it's the only IB magnet program in this part of the county."
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Lockhart Elementary, however, is not seeing the same kind of boost in student body.
Last year, the school had 440 students, said principal Larry Sykes. Now, the school has about 410 students.
But district officials and Sykes are excited about the new Creative Science magnet at the school, which replaces a previous performing arts program. In the same vein as Roland Park, district officials wanted to establish another K-8 magnet.
Since the school is right next to Young Middle, district officials decided to implement the same magnet program in both schools.
Under the creative science theme, district officials created a collaborative, hands-on curriculum that features projects involving students from both schools. These projects aim to solve problems facing local and global communities, said Jessica Addington, a lead teacher at Lockhart.
For example, second-, third- and fourth-grade students will create and maintain a food garden. Fourth-, fifth- and eighth-grade students will learn how to design water systems for developing countries.
Students from both schools also share learning centers, such as a hydroponics lab, a compost site and a weather station, Addington said.
The new theme brought new equipment and funding to the classrooms as well, Sykes said.
Though enrollment is still low, Sykes is confident that the numbers will pick up.
"As the community finds out more and more about what we are doing, we are going to grow," he said.
Sylvia Lim can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.