Friday, August 5, 2016
The right way to create magnet schools
Recent announcements of two new magnet schools in the San Antonio Independent School District make me wonder why the English language doesn’t give us a word that means the opposite of nostalgia.
Let me take you back two decades, to the first time the school district established a set of magnet schools — at least that’s what they called them.
It was not the most glorious period in the district’s history.
The district hadn’t produced a National Merit scholar in decades.
Laboring to meet state mandates to serve children who were behind grade level, the district had no programs to serve what I called “advantaged children.”
Definition: Children who had been read to every night since before they could talk.
I mentioned to a former school board member, the late Andy Mireles, that the district didn’t seem to want those.
He explained that they didn’t want any children whose families would question board members on such matters as how principals were chosen and contracts were let.
But in the mid-1990s, a divided board had hired a reform-oriented superintendent by the name of Diana Lam.
Before long they tried to fire her but then-Mayor Bill Thornton successfully rallied support for her.
But he couldn’t get the board to work with her.
In May of 1995, Lam’s father died in her native Peru.
She flew down for the funeral, missing her first board meeting in her two-year tenure.
A few days before that meeting, someone posted an addition to the agenda: Each of the district’s eight high schools would become host to a magnet school.
There had been little or no planning or consultation with the schools principals, no budget for additional costs, no discussions with experts, no partnerships lined up with the private sector.
Instead, each board member decided the themes for their schools’ “magnets.”
Themes ranged from arts and humanities to health professions.
Because there had been no process, citizens were forced to try to figure out for themselves the rationales.
A prominent rumor in the case of the West Side’s Lanier High School was that its magnet program, a grandly named “International School of Banking and Finance” was that board member Tom Lopez hoped for employment in that field.
Some of these programs still exist, though few if any thrived.
Contrast that board with the current one, led by the estimable Patti Radle.
It hired an ambitious, non-traditional superintendent in Pedro Martinez, and has backed him fully in planning a variety of innovative initiatives.
In the past two months he and the board have announced two new magnet schools.
One is called an “accelerated learning academy,” which will run from pre-K through high school.
Aimed at producing high-performing students, the non-traditional school will open this month.
To create it, SAISD partnered with Trinity University and its premier teacher-training program.
It has raised money from a consortium of foundations that previously had supported mainly charter schools.
More than $1 million a year will go to scholarships for involved Trinity students and for stipends for “mentor teachers.”
For its principal Martinez was able to woo Kathy Bieser away from her position as head of Northeast ISD’s highly regarded International School of the Americas.
More recently Superintendent Martinez announced a new hi-tech magnet at the old Fox Tech High School.
Advanced planning in this case included partnering with Rackspace and with Tech-Bloc, an emerging power in San Antonio that expects to find internships and after-school jobs for the students in nearby technology shops.
It also meant obtaining a multi-million-dollar grant from Charles Butt and H-E-B.
About $2.5 million will be used to convert two old shop buildings into state-of-the-art technology centers.
The grant will also fund hiring a new principal well in advance of the school’s opening next August.
A thousand students have already applied for the Advanced Learning Academy* — making hope for the future far outshine nostalgia for the past.
*CORRECTION: a thousand students applied for the Advanced Learning Academy, not the hi-tech high school as originally stated.