Prince George's County magnet schools were designed to integrate a racially isolated school system and offer a choice of distinctive programs, some with more rigorous academics, but 13 years after their creation the programs are largely falling short, according to a report.
Most are producing no better results on state exams than the rest of the county's schools, and 11 of 28 magnet elementary schools have not attracted enough white students to meet their racial diversity goals, the report said. In many cases, the magnet schools have failed to provide their advertised classes, including one elementary school that was supposed to offer Latin but had no Latin teacher.
The report, produced by a task force of school officials and county residents, will be released publicly next week. Its findings may surprise many Prince George's parents who believe the magnets offer an education superior to other schools in the troubled system. More than a third of the county's 130,000 students are enrolled in magnet programs, and thousands more are on waiting lists.
"It concerns me that we're falling short of expectations," said Cheryl Delamater, Parent Teacher Association president at Cooper Lane Elementary, the school that did not have a Latin teacher last school year though Latin is a hallmark of its magnet program.
The magnet school analysis was ordered last summer by a federal judge who ended 26 years of cross-county busing to achieve racial balance in Prince George's schools. School board members and Superintendent Iris T. Metts said they will continue to use magnet programs to promote voluntary integration in a school system that is about 76 percent African American. But they said they also want the programs to emphasize academic achievement and parental involvement.
"We have to think about changing our [admissions] criteria. The magnet schools were created purely for desegregation, and there was no academic component other than luring people into schools," School Board Vice Chairman Doyle Niemann (Mount Rainier) said. "That should not be the focus anymore. Desegregation is still important, but we need to make sure the programs are academically sound."
The task force report showed that nine of the school system's 28 magnet elementary schools are not offering the promised specialized curriculum and that 20 are not producing better results on state exams than the county's nonmagnet schools.
The report praises some popular programs, such as French immersion and creative arts--which provides music instruction, drama and dance classes--and recommends that officials offer them in more schools. It also recommends the expansion of the science, math and technology program, though that program hasn't produced significant academic results.
Other programs are targeted for possible elimination, particularly the curriculums at the county's six traditional academies and academic centers, which were designed to have stronger discipline and a more rigorous curriculum, including Latin instruction, but which produce some of the lowest scores in the county on state standardized exams.
Parents and educators blame an increasing focus on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests for some magnet schools' de-emphasis of their unique academic programs.
"Everything's the same because of MSPAP. The only way to tell the difference between us and a comprehensive school is that we have Latin and a computer lab," said William Veater, principal of Beltsville Elementary, the highest-scoring academic center magnet program.
The report acknowledged that some schools had difficulty supporting both a magnet and a standard curriculum, such as Doswell E. Brooks Elementary in Capitol Heights, where a focus on improving MSPAP scores has hurt the Montessori program approach, the report said.
But several magnet schools that didn't provide their distinct curriculums also failed to produce good student test results, according to the report. Magnet students who started first grade with low scores on standardized tests showed less academic improvement by third and fifth grades than did similar students who attended comprehensive schools, the report showed.
Some parents and educators say the magnet programs must pick students more selectively. Currently, students apply to a lottery and are selected to the programs--with the exception of French immersion, fine arts and talented and gifted--based on racial goals, with no academic entry requirements.
They also contend that magnet schools have been plagued by a lack of commitment to the programs from principals, poor training of teachers who are unfamiliar with the curriculums, crowded buildings and a lack of resources from the central administration.
The report cited the county's French immersion and creative arts programs as succeeding because they have specific curriculums and supportive administrators and parents. Thomas Pullen, a creative arts kindergarten through eighth-grade school in Landover, has a waiting list of 800. The report recommends creating more schools like Pullen and more foreign language immersion schools for Spanish and Japanese.
Prince George's officials should immediately intervene at eight struggling magnet schools and install magnet coordinators at all the schools, the report suggested. The task force will continue to evaluate the magnet programs through the rest of the school year and will offer further recommendations next year.
An internal analysis of Prince George's County's 28 elementary school magnet programs gives good grades to several, but notes the failure of many of the programs in three areas: offering the full magnet program curriculum; meeting goals for racial diversity; and academic achievement. Following are draft assessments and recommendations for the elementary magnet programs:
Should be duplicated:
Creative and Performing Arts
(Thomas G. Pullen)
(Rogers Heights, Shadyside)
Science, Math and Technology
(Concord, Fort Washington Forest, John Carroll, Owens Road, Paint Branch, Samuel Ogle)
Mostly successful, but specific major improve-ments must occur before considering these programs for replication or expansion.
Montessori (Doswell E. Brooks, Flintstone, Matthew Henson)
Talented and Gifted
(Capitol Heights, Glenarden Woods, Heather Hills, Henry G. Ferguson, Kenmoor, Longfields, Oakcrest, Valley View)
Communications and Academic Studies (Kettering, Kingsford)
May Be Eliminated
Recommended review of the programs, with possibility of elimination or replacement with a new magnet theme by June 2000.
Traditional/Classical Academies (Benjamin D. Foulois, Cooper Lane, Middleton Valley)
(Beltsville, Phyllis E. Williams)
Schools Specifically Targeted for Immediate Intervention
Low achievers in standard curriculums, considering their student populations. Must develop plans for improvement and boost test scores by June 2000. May be reorganized or elimi-nated, if school fails to meet these goals.
Doswell E. Brooks
SOURCE: Prince George's County Task Force to Study Magnet Program Issues