Magnet high schools across the country offer students a free, public school education combined with a focused experience that can…
Magnet high schools across the country offer students a free, public school education combined with a focused experience that can help students advance their careers and fulfill their dreams, whether they want to become scientists, playwrights or even professional pilots.
Magnet schools are a small category of public schools that typically emphasize specific areas of study or a particular teaching method. They are subject to regulation by the public school system that operates them, differentiating them from charter schools, which work under charters that provide more autonomy.
There are more than 4,300 magnet schools educating about 3.5 million children — about one in every 15 public school students — in 46 states and Washington, D.C., according to a 2017 report by Magnet Schools of America, an advocacy group. While most people think about high schools when they consider magnets, there are magnet elementary and middle schools around the country as well.
“Magnets continue to be a very strong option for students,” Todd Mann, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, wrote in an email. “The reason magnets are still popular is because they provide choice within school districts that focuses on equity, excellence and popular themes. Many families are looking for diverse, high-performing schools that cater to individual student interests, talents and abilities.”
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What Magnet Schools Offer
Magnet schools are designed to attract students from multiple districts, often with specialized programs that speak to students’ interests and career goals. And many offer rigorous curricula that can boost prospects for college admission.
“Colleges often talk about ‘rigor’ in deciding between students, and magnet high schools generally check that box,” says Nancy Edwards, owner of Edwards McKee Consultants in Maryland, who served as an alumni interviewer and minority student recruiter for Yale University.
“This is especially relevant in our era of COVID-19, when many colleges made the ACT and SAT optional for their admissions process,” she says. “College admissions officers typically have relationships with magnet schools or at least are familiar with the difficulty of curriculum, so they’re more likely to consider those magnet school students favorably over students from new schools or schools in unvisited areas, where rigor has not been confirmed.”
Of course, there are also some drawbacks. For example, to get into a magnet high school, students must apply in 8th grade. If their interests change in the ensuing four years, it creates a dilemma: stay in a school that no longer reflects your interests, or leave to attend a new school.
Inside Magnet Schools
There is no one format for a magnet school. They range from the Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts in New York, which actress Jennifer Aniston attended, to schools that immerse students into the world of flight.
Five years ago, Colonel Zadok Magruder High School in Maryland established its magnet aviation and aerospace program to help accommodate a need for pilots and mechanics that will grow over the next 20 years. The school is operated by Montgomery County Public Schools, the state’s largest district, and is one of about 350 similar flight-oriented high school magnet programs in the U.S. It has about 175 students.
“It’s an avenue of growth for students,” says Michael Smith, program coordinator for the magnet program at Magruder. “We give them exposure to different career paths, from the military to the mechanics side to flight school to colleges to specialty professions that use aviation as a stepping stone to launch a career.”
Students have the opportunity to earn college credit, a private pilot’s license and a remote pilot certificate that allows them to operate a drone, which is a fast-growing career. The learning style is truly hands-on. The school has real simulators for students to develop skills — including problem-solving skills — and students often travel to aviation facilities.
“It’s not a program where you sit and hear lectures,” Smith says.
Of course, there are many different types of magnets and those that focus on more traditional topics, like performing arts or STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), are far more common.
For example, Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a magnet school in Virginia, is one of the best STEM schools in the country. The school had the top average SAT score in the nation in 2019, according to a study by Brainly, an education technology company.
At Tesla STEM High School in Washington, students often do internships and, in one engineering course, create startup companies. Teams of students create a business plan, build a prototype product, validate it with customers and then present their idea to outside experts.
Magnet School Admission
The admissions process at magnet schools varies at schools and districts around the country. About 25% use academic criteria for admission, according to Magnet Schools of America. Getting into these schools can involve a rigorous process based on grades, test scores, portfolios or auditions.
Far more common, however, are lottery systems or other non-academic criteria, which are used when the number of students applying exceeds the number of spaces available. More than two-thirds of magnet schools (67%) have a waiting list.
Smith says he can always tell the students who truly want to attend.
“The truly passionate ones email and call every day,” he says. “They ask, ‘is my wait list up?’”
A Sample of Magnet Schools
For families looking at magnet schools, here are some examples around the country:
— Academic Magnet High School in North Charleston, South Carolina.
— Payton College Preparatory High School in Chicago.
— The School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas.
— Sumner Academy of Arts and Science in Kansas City, Kansas.
— Tesla STEM High School in Redmond, Washington.
— Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.
Searching for a school? Explore our K-12 directory.
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