tampabay.com

Magnet schools draw attention

The School Board thinks out loud about making changes, including addressing the income gap.

By TOM MARSHALL
Published February 4, 2007


BROOKSVILLE - Chalk it up to the search for a new superintendent, or perhaps to the just-started school rezoning effort to accommodate a new elementary school in Spring Hill.

Or chalk it up to last November's election, in which two School Board incumbents were ousted by former teachers unafraid to rock the boat, changing the political chemistry in favor of change.

But one thing is certain: It's a defining moment for Hernando County and its magnet schools.

Board member Jim Malcolm is calling for a new gifted-education magnet school under one roof - perhaps even in the new school, which officials have said repeatedly was intended as a neighborhood facility for kindergarten through eighth grade.

Magnet schools also are on the minds of board members Dianne Bonfield and John Sweeney, who say such limited-enrollment programs should accept children from their neighborhoods and better reflect the community.

"The magnet schools really are not reflective of the diversity in the rest of our schools," Bonfield said recently. "My intention is to try and equalize our enrollment."

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What's clear, based on district and state statistics, is that Hernando County's three magnet schools have attracted a larger proportion of affluent, white families than the district at large.

Low-income children at two magnet schools - Challenger K-8 School of Science and Mathematics and Chocachatti Elementary - make up 24 percent and 26 percent of the student population, respectively, compared with a district average of 42 percent.

In four other elementary schools and the district's discipline academy, at least 60 percent of children qualify for a free or reduced-fee lunch based on their family's income.

African-American children make up just 2 percent of the student population at Challenger and Chocachatti, and 5 percent at the Nature Coast Technical High School magnet, compared with a district average of 7 percent. Six schools enroll black students at double-digit levels.

Why that's happened isn't clear; district officials say any family is free to apply to the magnet schools. Half of students gain admission through a portfolio system, and the other half compete in a lottery.

"We do push our kids, but I think all schools push their kids," said Sue Stoops, the principal at Challenger. "Some parents might think it's a more difficult school. We do require science fair participation for all children.

"If I push the child, that means I'm kind of pushing the parent, too," she added.

Wayman Boggs, parent liaison for the NAACP in Brooksville, has another explanation. He said some black and low-income families simply don't think the magnet schools are intended for them.

Giving preference to African-American families might be impractical as long as the Supreme Court is weighing the legality of such measures, officials said.

But both Stoops and Chocachatti principal Michael Tellone said they could support weighting the applications of low-income families in the school's lottery or holding a lottery for neighborhood families.

But they oppose Bonfield and Sweeney's proposal to create a partial zone around magnet schools, saying that would harm the voluntary nature of their programs, including requirements that parents volunteer eight to nine hours per year.

Differing philosophies

Tellone said there's a perception that Hernando magnet schools only take gifted or high-achieving students.

In fact, his school and others in the district follow a policy of gifted inclusion, pulling gifted children out of the classroom rarely and supporting them with classroom visits by trained gifted-education teachers.

"Without a doubt, all the others have been pulled up, being surrounded by those students," Tellone said. "It raises the bar."

But he acknowledged that some families see it differently.

"They want elitism," he said. "They want their kids to be separated from everyone else. And I think that's dangerous."

Board member Jim Malcolm says he's not in favor of any such thing.

But he does want a centralized program for gifted students - perhaps just for kindergarten through eighth grade, to serve as a feeder for Springstead High School's planned International Baccalaureate program - with an administrator and teachers trained in gifted methods.

A parent group, Partners Allied for Gifted Education and Support, wants the same thing.

"We have no designs on a new school, pretty desks or textbooks," said Cindy Gustafson, whose daughters attend Gulf Coast Academy and Springstead. "All people are asking for is an appropriate education."

Malcolm said he's concerned about statistics showing Hernando magnet schools don't attract all families equally and said extra outreach efforts might help. But he said the district can't compromise on its commitment to serving gifted students.

"We're short-changing them," Malcolm said. "We can do better."

Tom Marshall can be reached at tmarshall@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1431.

Who is attracted to magnet schools?

Hernando County's three magnet and one charter school, listed in bold, have attracted a larger proportion of affluent, white families than the district at large.

Source: Florida Department of Education; Hernando County Schools

School

Free and reduced-fee lunch users Black enrollment Hispanic enrollment
Brooksville Elementary 62 percent 16 percent 7 percent
Westside Elementary 61 percent 6 percent 14 percent
Eastside Elementary 60 percent 10 percent 8 percent
Deltona Elementary 52 percent 5 percent 14 percent
Moton Elementary 61 percent 13 percent 8 percent
Suncoast Elementary 36 percent 3 percent 11 percent
Pine Grove Elementary 48 percent 5 percent 7 percent
Spring Hill Elementary 56 percent 6 percent 18 percent
J.D. Floyd Elementary 37 percent 7 percent 15 percent
Chocachatti Elementary 26 percent 2 percent 7 percent
Challenger K-8 24 percent 2 percent 7 percent
Fox Chapel Middle 54 percent 4 percent 17 percent
Powell Middle 41 percent 6 percent 13 percent
Parrott Middle 53 percent 12 percent 8 percent
West Hernando Middle 48 percent 7 percent 10 percent
Gulf Coast Academy 32 percent 2 percent 2 percent
Hernando High 32 percent 12 percent 5 percent
Central High 36 percent 6 percent 12 percent
Springstead High 34 percent 5 percent 15 percent
Nature Coast Tech 31 percent 5 percent 10 percent
STAR Center 66 percent 17 percent 12 percent
District average 42 percent 7 percent 11 percent