Starting next fall, Montgomery County middle schoolers who are fascinated by aerospace will have an academic program just for them. The same goes for young people interested in computers or performing arts and communication.
It's all part of the county's first middle school magnet consortium, a group of three middle schools with specialized programs that will emphasize interdisciplinary study and real-world experience. The schools are in the downcounty area, but applications will be accepted from throughout in the school system.
Officials said the programs -- to be established at Argyle, Parkland and Belt middle schools -- will be a model for upcoming middle school improvement projects around the county. Belt is scheduled to reopen next school year.
"The whole notion is of really looking in a visionary way at our middle schools," said Erick Lang, director of the Downcounty Consortium. "We're taking an opportunity to really look at what we can do in middle schools, how we can create countywide and national models in these schools for teaching and learning."
Helped by a $7.2 million federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the magnet consortium will accommodate between 1,800 and 2,200 students, easing crowding and increasing the quality of education in the middle schools, said Bruce Crispell, senior planner for county schools.
There will be no academic requirements for admission to the programs, though priority will be given to students who live in areas near each school. Exact boundaries have yet to be determined, but officials said these boundaries will not affect elementary school boundaries or high school base areas.
Superintendent Jerry D. Weast plans to make boundary recommendations to the school board Oct. 15, based on community input he received during public meetings in September and early this month. There will be additional public hearings Nov. 10 and 11, and the board is scheduled to make a decision Nov. 18.
The development of the consortium comes as the school system is preparing a comprehensive review of its middle schools. Officials are completing an internal report and awaiting an external audit of the schools, both of which are expected before spring.
One hope is to draw into the magnet programs promising students from clusters outside the downcounty area as well as students who would otherwise attend private schools, said Joseph Lavorgna, director of the school system's Department of Planning and Capital Programming. The federal grant, awarded in August, will provide for "a lot of staff development, curricular development and technology, so that these schools can create programs that will be attractive to students and will help improve student performance," he said.
Argyle Middle School will have the Magnet Academy for Information Technology. Parkland will have the Magnet Academy for Aerospace, Satellite and Robotic Technologies. Belt will have the Magnet Academy for Creative Arts in Performance and Communication.
These are not magnet programs in the traditional sense, Crispell said. Students interested in the programs will participate in a school-choice process, he said, and there are enough seats to accommodate all students in the three schools' choice areas -- plus about 400 students from other areas of the county.
Transportation will be available to students in the Rockville, Walter Johnson and Bethesda-Chevy Chase clusters and to students in the area immediately surrounding each school. Applications to the programs will be accepted beginning Jan. 28.
School officials are careful to differentiate the downcounty middle school magnet consortium from the high school consortiums and particularly from the Downcounty Consortium school-choice plan that began this fall; that program spans five high schools in the Silver Spring area.
The downcounty high schools also have academic programs intended to appeal to students' individual interests and career goals, but those programs are more geared toward career development than the middle school academies, Lang said.
"The middle school programs are designed to connect to students' interests but not to be a career choice," he said. "If a student is interested in the arts, interested in technology, interested in space, there will be things at these schools that hopefully will pique their interest and make them more excited about learning. It's about making their education more connected to the real world, so that students can see real applications for what they're learning."