The aging brick building in a working-class neighborhood of Silver Spring now showcases its engineering and bioscience programs during open houses and information sessions, in an online video, and during visits to middle schools and informal meetings with neighborhood parents.
“You need to get out there and sell your school and sell your programs and recruit your students,” Lowndes said.
As school choice becomes a mantra of 21st century education reform, especially for the growing charter school movement, traditional public schools also are embracing free-market competition.
Tens of thousands of Washington area children crisscross their districts to attend specialized science, foreign language or performing-arts programs in regular public schools.
The mission of these choice programs is changing, though. Magnet schools, offering specialized curriculum to attract students beyond neighborhood boundaries, were created in the 1960s as tools for voluntary desegregation. But as courts dismantled school assignment policies based on race, many school districts have played down — or abandoned — their diversity goals.
Now, choice in many traditional public schools is seen a way to increase student performance and parent satisfaction as well as to stay competitive with private schools and public charters.
“I like choice,” said Dara Gideos, a Silver Spring parent. “It makes you feel like you are controlling your destiny.” Gideos did not want her eighth-grade daughter to attend Wheaton, her neighborhood high school, so she was glad to have other schools to choose from.
After visiting open houses all fall, Gideos expects to find out her daughter’s final assignment by mid-February.
In a sign of the changing times, many school districts are abandoning the term magnet.
“Magnets are associated with desegregation,” said Gladys Whitehead, director of curriculum and instruction in Prince George’s County.
The Prince George’s school board shut three dozen magnet programs after court-ordered desegregation ended in 2004. Diversity goals had become harder to achieve in the predominantly black school system, and officials found that extra program costs were not leading to better results. Now county schools offer a smaller number of “specialty programs” with goals of “raising student achievement and appealing to different students’ interests,” she said.
Arlington County has “choice schools,” and one in four of the county’s students attend a school other than his or her home school. Historically, some of Arlington’s choice initiatives were created to decrease racial isolation, but most came about because of community interest in a particular program, said spokeswoman Linda Erdos.