District opens door for new magnet programs

District opens door for new magnet programs

Michele Ellson

The school district is accepting proposals for new magnet schools and innovative school programs that could be open for business by the fall of 2015.

Assistant Superintendent Barbara Adams said some schools have expressed interest in starting a new program, but nothing specific is in the works yet. Proposals for new programs will be due in June, while those from schools seeking to copy existing programs are due a few months earlier, in March.

Brand-new programs that win school board approval would open in the fall of 2016, while programs that replicate existing innovative or magnet programs would open a year earlier, in 2015.

A request for proposals for the programs was sent to school staffers in November; the school board received a briefing on the programs at their meeting Tuesday.

The district’s master plan, approved in 2010, called for the creation of the new school options as a strategy for retaining families who might otherwise decamp for charter and private schools. About 11 percent of the district’s students attend a charter.

More than three-quarters of the 249 people who responded to a survey taken during the creation of the plan expressed an interest in magnet school options, with the top choices being high school science and technology and arts magnets and an elementary-level language immersion school.

The district opened three new elementary school programs last year – an arts magnet at the former Washington Elementary School, a program at Amelia Earhart that integrated technology and music into math and science instruction, and a program that integrated more technology into instruction at Bay Farm Elementary and is adding middle school grades there. A fourth program, the Junior Jets middle school program on the Encinal High School campus, opened this fall, while a fifth – a science, technology, engineering and math program at Wood Middle School – wasn’t approved by the board.

Bay Farm added a seventh grade this year and will add an eighth grade next fall; the former Washington school, now Maya Lin, was planned to expand to eighth grade but district staff say the middle school grades shouldn’t be considered there for a few more years.

Innovative programs for Amelia Earhart and Bay Farm were budgeted at $132,569 and $378,759, respectively, school budget documents approved by the school board in June show. A budget for Maya Lin approved at that time wasn’t included in a board packet posted online, though an earlier presentation to the board estimated the program’s cost at $352,000 this year; it wasn’t clear what the total budget for Junior Jets is this year.

The impact of the new programs on enrollment and achievement isn’t yet entirely clear. The district is educating a few dozen more middle schoolers this year than it did last year despite the addition of the new Junior Jets program, which has 184 students.

While test scores have risen district-wide over the last several years, the new Maya Lin school – which has an enrollment of 325, up from 250 two years ago – notched a 71-point jump in its tests scores after the magnet opened last year. The Bay Farm and Earhart programs are open only to students in those neighborhoods; Earhart’s attendance rose by 27 students this year, while Bay Farm has added 110 sixth and seventh graders.

Board member Barbara Kahn said the school had gotten off to a “really rocky” start this year, struggling to hire staff and to manage large numbers of special education students; she said the district needs to do more to both support and to promote the school.

“If we want this program to be successful, it has to be sold,” Kahn said. “It’s not just going to sell itself.”

In a related discussion, district staff recommended the board approve a five-year extension of the Nea Community Learning Center’s charter. The board will vote on the extension next week, though trustees have already said they expect to approve it.

Kahn said she would vote to extend the charter because she is legally bound to do so – state law effectively requires school boards to okay charters unless they fail to demonstrate solid educational or financial planning, among other requirements – but she urged charter parents to consider the financial impact their decisions have on other district students. Board member Trish Spencer, meanwhile, said she supports Nea and the choice it provides to Island families.