What Is a Magnet School?

Dr. Dennis D. Cantu Health Science Magnet School
Dr. Dennis D. Cantu Health Science Magnet School.

Billy Hathorn / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

Magnet schools are public schools that have specialized curricula in areas such as the sciences, arts, leadership, or languages. Students often choose magnet schools so that they can challenge themselves in fields that appeal to their interests. The term "magnet," in fact, refers to this idea of attraction. Students are drawn to a magnet school because of its academic focus.

Features of a Magnet School

  • A curricular focus in an area such as science or the performing arts
  • Students drawn from a wide area to create racial and socioeconomic diversity
  • Free tuition since schools are public and funded by tax payers
  • Graduation and college placement rates that tend to outperform other public schools

History of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools were born out of the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and they represented an effort to desegregate large city schools. Schools had typically be defined by neighborhood—students attended schools that were closest to their homes. The result of such practice, however, was that schools mirrored the often segregated nature of their communities.

Magnet schools were designed to draw students from different school zones. Students from diverse neighborhoods would choose to attend a school that might be further from home because the school catered to their particular strengths and interests. Specifically, many magnet schools exist in urban areas to help address the problem of "white flight" from many city neighborhoods.

The first magnet school in the United States was McCarver Elementary School in Tacoma, Washington. Called an "alternative school" at the time, it offered students a less rigid curriculum so that they could learn at their own pace. By 1971, more alternative schools had opened in cities including Minneapolis, Berkeley, Dallas.

The success of many of these schools showed that desegregation could be accomplished through choice rather than court order and forced bussing, and the popularity of magnet schools has grown ever since. Today, the United States is home to well over 3,000 magnet schools.

What Are Magnet Schools Today?

Magnet schools exist at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. Many have remained true to their original goals of promoting diversity through educational choice. Connecticut, for example, has 95 magnet schools spread across the state, and all have admissions policies designed to promote both socioeconomic and racial diversity. These schools consistently rank among the top in the state.

Not all schools, however, fully live up to the ideals of the magnet school movement. Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia, ranks #1 in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of magnet schools in the country. The school has a highly diverse student body with 79% minority enrollment, but only 2% of students are from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

Some of the nation's best magnet schools can boast of 100% graduation and college placement rates, and with that success comes competitive admissions and a focus on gifted students that will close the school's opportunities to other students.

Examples of Magnet Schools

Magnet schools vary greatly in size and focus. Below are just a few examples:

Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas, Texas. Established in 1976, this high school of about 700 students is 29% African-American, 26% Hispanic, 42% White, and 3% Asian American. 27% of students qualify for reduced-price lunches, and the school achieved a 97.5% college acceptance rate.

Design and Architecture Senior High School in Miami, Florida. This school of 479 students has a focus on architecture, visual communication, interior design, fashion, and entertainment technology. The student body is 52% Hispanic, 28% White, 16% African-American, and 3% Asian American. Over a third of students qualify for reduced-price lunches, and 100% were admitted to colleges.

Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School in Los Angeles, California. Relatively large for a magnet school with 1,723 students, this school focused on the health and medical professions. The student body is about two-thirds Hispanic, and 83% of students qualify for reduced-price lunches. 94% of students were admitted to colleges.

Admission to Magnet Schools

The success of magnet schools has made many of them selective, and admissions processes vary greatly from school to school and city to city. Some operate on a simple lottery that assures equal opportunity for attendance across all applicants. Other schools have deliberate procedures for assuring a balanced mix of students from different neighborhoods. More selective schools may have interviews, standardized tests, and/or auditions as part of the application process.

Admission to some schools will be all but guaranteed while other schools reject far more applicants than are admitted. In the Houston Independent School District, for example, Harvard Elementary accepted just 25% of qualified applicants and Kolter Elementary was like an Ivy League school with a 7% admit rate. Many other magnet schools in the city, however, had acceptance rates at or near 100%.

Pros and Cons of Magnet Schools

As with all education options, magnet schools come with a mix of advantages and disadvantages. The pros are many:

Cost. Magnet schools are public schools just like your local high school, so they are funded by taxpayers and have no other cost for attendance. Students get a high quality education for free whereas a good private school may cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

Diversity. Founded to help end segregation, magnet schools tend to have a more diverse student body than schools serving a specific neighborhood. Students in magnet schools learn not just the course content from their teachers, but also the experiences of peers who have backgrounds quite different from their own.

Strong Academics. With some exceptions, magnet schools tend to outperform their public school neighbors, and they typically have very high graduation and college placement rates. Many magnet schools have strong AP or IB curricula, and students will be able to explore the school's curricular focus in greater depth than at a traditional high school.

The negative aspects of magnet schools are mostly focused on one of the defining features of the schools: they draw students from different neighborhoods. This can lead to some hassles and frustrations for parents and students:

Friends may live far away. When students make friends in a magnet school, they may live a significant distance away. This makes play dates for younger kids difficult, and it can challenging for older students to get together for fun or study.

Not all magnet schools provide transportation. Because they can cover a large geographic area, many magnet schools cannot provide bussing or transportation. This clearly places an added burden on parents.

After-school activities can be a challenge. Again, with the distances and often limited bussing, parents may need to pick up students from after-school activities, and attending sporting events, concerts, dances, and other activities may have significant transportation challenges.

Magnet schools may hurt neighboring public schools. Since magnet schools tend to attract bright, high-achieving students, the overall academic quality of students at neighboring schools may decline.

Hinds, Harold. "Drawn to Success: Now Do Integrated Magnet Schools Work?"
Houston Independent School District. Chances of acceptance at magnet schools.
statista. "Total number of magnet schools in the United States from 2000/01 to 2017/18"
U.S. Department of Education. Successful Magnet High Schools.
U.S. News & World Report. Best Magnet High School Rankings 2020.

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Grove, Allen. "What Is a Magnet School?" ThoughtCo, Mar. 1, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-is-a-magnet-school-5114572. Grove, Allen. (2021, March 1). What Is a Magnet School? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-magnet-school-5114572 Grove, Allen. "What Is a Magnet School?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-a-magnet-school-5114572 (accessed April 16, 2021).