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In Hernando County, seeking a fair magnet school solution that sticks

Here's what "magnet" means in most school systems:

It's a program placed in an existing school. If this school is under-populated, as it often is, the magnet kids fill it up. If it's under-performing, the passion for a specialized magnet curriculum tends to raise the entire school's academic standards. If the school is in a mostly segregated neighborhood, importing children from throughout the district promotes diversity.

Hernando, on the other hand, doesn't have magnet programs, but magnet schools, all of which were brand-new when designated as such. Other children receive no benefit from the programs' excellence because, of course, nobody but the magnet kids get to attend. And instead of more diversity, you end up with less, at least economically.

Two magnets, Chocachatti Elementary and Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics, produce consistently high test scores. But they also have the district's lowest percentage of children eligible for free and reduced-price lunches.

I guess it would be too much to expect our School Board to address this inequity in one afternoon. But when I went to its workshop Tuesday, partly out of interest in this subject, partly to see this sometimes maligned group at work, I hoped they would make a better effort than they did.

Last summer, you may remember, superintendent Bryan Blavatt called the board "the most dysfunctional, nonproductive, counterproductive group of individuals I've ever seen." I've seen the old Spring Hill Fire Rescue Commission, and this bunch isn't even close.

But a group of parents, teachers and administrative staffers had given the board a chance to take a step forward on magnets. After a year of meetings, it came up with a plan to require all three magnet schools (the third being Nature Coast Technical High School) to admit 40 percent of their students from geographic zones around the schools.

And Eric Williams, the district's director of school improvement, gave board members a clear sign that our local idea of magnets is out of step with the norm.

Hernando magnets admit 70 percent of their students based on portfolios, and only 30 percent by lottery. To qualify for federal grants that could help pay for current magnet programs or create new ones, Williams said, that percentage has to be flipped.

Board member Cynthia Moore was impressive, as you've probably read. She passionately denounced the elitism of the parents who have complained about admitting "those kids" who live near the schools.

And because most of the kids admitted to Challenger and Chocachatti are incoming kindergartners, her assumption that the portfolios unfairly reward students with involved parents seems like a safe one.

For that reason, she said, she would like to see more kids admitted by lottery. Member John Sweeney said the same, but neither one was able to rally anyone else to their side. There was too much dithering, too much digression, too much of Sweeney making strained metaphors about the solitary child printed on the tie he was wearing.

The board approved admitting zoned students only at Nature Coast, and only because principal Toni-Ann Noyes said declining enrollment was costing her school money.

But as for the bigger issue of magnets and equity — well, maybe because of the presence of a handful of parents who like the magnets just the way they are — the board didn't seem eager to take on this subject.

Yes, Blavatt gave members the opportunity to punt, telling them they could put off the discussion on overhauling the magnets for a year. And, yes, there are philosophical considerations that could benefit from long-term contemplation.

And, certainly, Blavatt is a better judge of the School Board's performance than someone like me, who rarely drops in on meetings. He says that since Gov. Rick Scott finally got around to naming a fifth member, and because that member, lawyer Matt Foreman, is showing a lot of promise, the board is working far more efficiently than it once did.

But considering it spent more than two hours talking about magnets and got almost nothing done, I think we can expect better.

In Hernando County, seeking a fair magnet school solution that sticks 10/20/11 [Last modified: Thursday, October 20, 2011 8:09pm]
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