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Cheerfully, kids lose sleep over magnets

Parents say the special school programs make up for the extra time students may spend on buses to reach them.

Published October 3, 2003

Some schoolchildren in South Tampa wake earlier than others to catch buses before 6 a.m. In predawn darkness they ride to a transfer hub, where they catch another bus, arriving at their schools just after sunrise.

The students forfeit sleep to attend a county magnet program, where extra money buys new technology and where enrollment caps keep class sizes small.

They choose the programs to prepare for careers entertaining, exploring space, advancing computer technology and curing diseases.

Earlier than usual, decision time for next school year is here.

Magnet schools, the first tier of school choice this year, will accept applications for 2004-05 now through Nov. 14, when choice between neighborhood schools begins.

For magnet school students, the advantages of the programs outweigh travel times.

"Kids have to really want to go to the school to transfer," said Barbara Brown, magnet administrative resource teacher. "Everybody who's there is there because they want to be there. They want that focus."

While choosing a school may take some work, getting into elementary and middle magnet programs is as simple as turning in a one-page application before deadline. Students win slots through a lottery system. Some magnet schools draw children only from within certain boundaries. For example, the middle school math, science and technology theme sends South Tampa children to Stewart Middle, except for those in a special zone for Young Middle School. Likewise, an arts theme sends most South Tampa elementary children to Lockhart.

But for high schools, the process is competitive and varies by school. Students must complete a writing session and are evaluated on grades, teacher recommendations, writing samples and even portfolios and auditions in some cases.

Magnet schools began in Hillsborough County at Lee Elementary and Ferrell Middle schools in 1993. At the time, they were a solution to desegregation. They lured children equally from mostly black and white neighborhoods to previously low performing schools in poor neighborhoods, outfitted with magnet features.

Now, the practice encourages diversity within schools and promotes alternative teaching styles.

The magnet program has grown steadily.

This year, Muller Elementary opened with the first dual theme, environment blended with arts. Principal Bonnye Taylor said students in kindergarten through third grade spend 45 minutes a week working in gardens. Older children will grow butterfly gardens and pizza gardens, where everything grown can be baked on pizza.

Next year brings two new magnet programs. MacFarlane Park Elementary focuses on preparing kids for an international baccalaureate program. Franklin Middle focuses on law and public service.

Federal grants supplement district funds for operating expenses. This year, the grants contributed more than $2-million. Much of that will pay to set up the new schools.

At Blake High, federal money helped build studios for art, dance and sculpture, photographic darkrooms, a computer lab and a $7-million auditorium with an orchestra pit.

The extra money also permits magnet schools to limit class size.

"One of the huge draws is that we've capped our schools at 800 to 850 max, which keeps class size small," said Brown. "It frees teachers to look at each student individually so that every kid can excel."

Students aren't the only ones drawn to magnet programs. Teachers undergo a rigorous application process, although their pay is unaffected.

Teacher Joe Mandracchia drives from his home in Brandon to Orange Grove Middle Magnet of the Arts in Ybor City. After 20 years teaching in Brandon, he brought his grant-backed program to the magnet school. He runs his technology class like a business; students punch in on a time clock each day and pilot a product, which they market in real-world fashion.

"The best thing about the school is that everyone has chosen to be here," said Mandracchia. "The students are more dedicated, the teachers are more dedicated and without a doubt, the parents are more involved."

But of course, magnets aren't for everyone.

Some parents want to keep their children closer to home in neighborhood schools.

And some children don't want to leave friends behind.

For those drawn to magnet schools, transportation is the biggest hurdle. The majority of the 10,000 students are home by 4:30 p.m. and everyone's home by 5 p.m., said Gayla Norris, route coordinator for magnet transportation.

Magnet schools release students at 2:30 and 2:45 p.m.

One of the last stops in South Tampa is at 4:15 p.m. at MacDill Air Force Base, Norris said.

"We've had a couple misplaced because they were asleep on the backseat," she said, "but we've never lost one."

- Elisabeth Dyer can be reached at 226-3321 or learn more.

Attend a meeting at any of these locations, where representatives from all magnet schools will explain their programs: Blake High, Tuesday; Tomlin Middle, Thursday; Wharton High, Oct. 14; Riverview High, Oct. 20; Sickles High, Oct. 23; Armwood High, Oct. 28; or Middleton High, Nov. 3. Sessions are 6:30 to 7:20 p.m. and 7:30 to 8:20 p.m.

Attend an open house at the actual magnet school. Elementary and middle magnet schools will open their doors on Nov. 1 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. High school magnets will accept visitors at these times and locations: Tampa Tech, 6 to 7:30 p.m. today; Middleton, 10 to 11:30 a.m. Oct. 18; Blake, 6:30 to 8 p.m. Oct. 27; Hillsborough, 7 to 8:30 p.m. Nov. 5; and Jefferson, 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Nov. 8.

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