The Fairfax County School Board is shelving plans for a proposed magnet high school for the arts, even though other area school systems are establishing more such programs in an effort to nurture talented students.
The board has ordered its staff to put aside a proposal to use Mount Vernon High School as an arts magnet school until it studies the larger issue of whether such programs are an improvement over keeping students in conventional high schools.
"I don't think the community as a whole is pushing us to create magnet schools," School Board Chairman Mary E. Collier said yesterday.
"I just haven't seen yet that we can't do it in each of our high schools and I would prefer to develop that option more fully."
The action, taken Monday night during a School Board committee meeting, puts the area's largest system at odds with other local jurisdictions that are adopting magnet schools, which draw students from throughout the school system and concentrate on a particular area such as science, computers or the arts.
Many of the new magnet schools, especially in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, were established to attract white students to what were largely minority schools.
Fairfax County, with few black students, faces no such pressures.
Four of Fairfax's 22 high schools offer vocational programs for students from throughout the county, and one -- the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Annandale -- accepts students from throughout Northern Virginia.
Fairfax also offers some magnet programs for gifted elementary students.
Collier and several other Fairfax board members said they want to study the impact of the Thomas Jefferson school, which opened this year, before deciding to add other magnet schools.
There were concerns when Jefferson was established that it might draw the best students and teachers away from other schools and thereby weaken them.
Collier said Jefferson is a special case because it has more than a million dollars' worth of laboratory equipment and computers, an expense that would be impossible to duplicate at other schools.
"The type of equipment needed to produce a magnet school for the arts can be and is available in our high schools," Collier said.
"Where the cost of equipment is not a factor, I think our students prefer to stay in their home school."
Board members said they knew of students who gave up the chance to attend a magnet program because it required a lengthy bus trip or because they preferred to stay with friends at a school closer to home.
Collier said more arts could be taught at existing high schools by adding a class period to the day or by more flexible scheduling, rather than a magnet program.
One exception to the doubt about the arts magnet school was Kim Willoughby, the nonvoting student representative on the School Board.
Willoughby, a Langley High School senior, said some arts students feel lost at conventional schools because of the current academic emphasis. "If you put them together [in a magnet school] and gave them a focus, they'd come out shining," she said.