School magnet program up for debate in school system
July 18, 2002
Alexander Krughoff
Staff Writer

The Prince George's County Board of Education has a mandate from the state to revamp the school system's magnet school program or forfeit $14 million in grant funding this year.

But as the school board buckles down to review the program and make changes, the discussion is centering on whether the school system should even have a magnet program.

"We are doing it simply for the $14 million we get from the state," claims Donna Hathaway Beck, president of the Forestville High School PTA.

In April, the state Board of Education warned the school board if it did not restructure its magnet school program by the end of June it would withdraw its grant funding. The state has backed off its no-plan, no-money stance, agreeing to transfer the money as long as the school system provides a timeline for changing the program's structure.

On July 2, Susan Miller, director of the county schools magnet school program, and Schools Chief Executive Officer Iris Metts presented a plan to revamp the sprawling magnet school program into a community-based program aimed at keeping students in their local schools.

But Metts' proposal has caused some board members to question the goals of the magnet program and how it fits into the school system's future.

"The big choice that the board is going to have to make is we should keep the magnet school program or get rid of it all together," said school board Chair Beatrice Tignor, of Upper Marlboro. "We have always been told that the magnet program does not provide a better education, just a different one."

The debate is relevant in light of last month's federal court decision that ruled the school system "unitary"- meaning the school system is officially desegregated. The county had started its magnet school program in 1986 as tool to aid desegregation.

With the court ruling and funding from the Thornton Commission recommendations, Tignor said it is unlikely the county school system will receive extra money from the state just for its magnet school program after this school year.

So far, the school administration has funded the $15.4 million magnet program entirely through the state grant and a $4 million grant from the U. S. Department of Education, which will expire in 2003.

While the school system is slated to get $36.9 million in additional funding from the state next year, the big question facing the board is whether to use almost half of that extra money to continue the magnet school program.

"We need to see if this program is really accomplishing what it is supposed to," said school board vice chair Howard Stone, of Mitchellville.

What Stone and several other board members are looking for from the administration is data showing how magnet school students are performing -- which they have not received.

As part of the federal court ruling, the school system must engage a panel of experts on magnet schools to review the county's program and its effectiveness.

According to Tignor, the board and the experts will look at successful magnet programs in Boston and North Carolina, before making any serious decisions on how to restructure the county's program.

Prince George's is the only school system in the state to have a magnet school program according to the Maryland Department of Education. Other counties have magnet programs at individual schools, like Montgomery's Blair High School in Silver Spring, which serves as the county's premier science and technology high school. Baltimore City Public Schools has an Arts magnet program at one of its high schools and Baltimore County Public Schools has two magnet schools.

Prince George's County is the only school system in the state to receive extra funding from the state specifically for its magnet school program.

"It is important to keep the magnet school program in place to insure the school system offers the best possible education to all our students," said Howard Tutman, president of the Prince George's County Council of PTAs.

"Part of the school district's mission is to serve everyone, which includes the high performing students. With the new direction that this school system is heading we don't have to settle. We can have both."

Last year, Sangeenta Ray pulled her sixth-grade son out of a private Catholic school and sent him to Paint Branch Elementary School because of its magnet program.

"We have been very happy with the program," said Ray. "But I am worried about what is going to happen to it in the future. We need to have dedicated schools like Blair in Montgomery County, which is considered a great magnet school. But we also have to focus on improving the basics, not just the premier programs."

The school administration has been hesitant to discuss the magnet school program in detail since its proposed restructuring over a year ago. Miller did not return numerous phone calls seeking comment over the last two weeks and requests for an interview with Metts were not granted.

As part of the court ruling the county must adopt any changes to the magnet school program by Dec. 30.

"We are going to make a decision by then," said school board member Abby Crowley, of Greenbelt. "But whatever decision we make I can't promise that it is not going to be disruptive. This decision is going to effect everyone."

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