Superintendent Iris T. Metts says the county's magnet programs should be retooled to put more emphasis on academics, but she supports the continued use of magnet schools despite a new report saying they have largely fallen short of their goals.

Prince George's set up its magnet schools 13 years ago to encourage voluntary integration of the county's increasingly racially segregated schools. The magnet schools were another way to diversify the population of the schools, which had been under a court-mandated cross-county desegregation busing system since 1974.

The magnets were to draw students from other neighborhoods by offering a choice of curricula, some with more rigorous academics. But more than a decade after their creation, the magnet schools are coming up short in some areas.

The Washington Post reported last week that an internal school system report detailed disappointing performances in many elementary magnet schools. Another report assessing middle and high school magnet programs is due this school year. Of the 184 public schools in the county, 28 are magnet elementary schools, 16 are magnet middle schools and 12 are magnet high schools.

The new report found that most of the magnet school students do not perform better on state exams than those from non-magnet schools and that 11 of the 28 magnet elementaries do not meet their racial diversity goals. Nine of the 28 have failed to deliver their advertised curricula--such as Cooper Lane Elementary, which featured Latin but did not have a Latin teacher last year.

The report is scheduled to be presented publicly at the county Board of Education meeting at 7 p.m. tomorrow at the Sasscer Administration Building, 14201 School Lane in Upper Marlboro.

Despite the report's findings, Metts said she will push to keep magnet schools a key part of the school system. The only question, she said, is how to restructure them to improve the academics and increase scores on the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests.

"If we look at the future of the Prince George's school system, I see magnet schools still being an important part of choice for parents in selecting schools," Metts said. "I do not see them going away or disappearing. We just want to make them as strong as possible."

The magnet school study--which was produced by a task force of school officials and county residents--was ordered in summer 1998 by U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte when he ended 26 years of cross-county busing to achieve racial balance in schools. As the county returns to a system of neighborhood schools, officials are trying to determine the best way to use magnet programs to continue to promote voluntary integration but also improve academics and step up parental involvement in the schools.

The school board's options include: expanding generally successful magnet programs, such as French immersion, creative and performing arts, and science, math and technology; eliminating generally ineffective ones such as the traditional academies and academic centers; establishing brand new magnets such as Spanish immersion; creating admissions standards to magnet programs that include academic criteria; housing all magnet programs in separate schools from standard curriculum schools; or all of the above.

School Board Chairman Alvin Thornton (Suitland) helped establish the magnet programs. He said they were intended primarily to integrate schools and keep white families from leaving the school system and were not billed to be better academically than the rest of the county's schools. Therefore, he said, magnets should not be considered a failure academically.

Furthermore, Thornton said, the creators of the magnet programs knew those programs would thrive only if the school system had adequate funds. He said Prince George's has not had adequate funding, which has contributed to problems with the magnets.

"If you have magnets in an underfunded general education system, they will not work," he said.

Parents, teachers and administrators have different ideas about how the programs should be restructured.

Currently, none of the magnet programs except talented and gifted has academic criteria for admission. Students apply for a lottery and are selected for the programs based on racial goals.

Ann Davidson, a parent and member of the task force, suggested that one way to improve the programs is to pick students more selectively. For example, the science and technology program at Eleanor Roosevelt High--which is not officially a magnet program--requires students to achieve minimum scores on tests for admission.

"If the county wants to succeed, it needs more high school programs that are competitive-entry," said Davidson, whose daughter is in the French immersion program at Rogers Heights Elementary in Bladensburg. "That way, you'd know that there are some very good students there serious about the school."

But school board member Kenneth E. Johnson (Mitchellville) said he envisions magnet programs as the "centerpiece" of a new system of neighborhood schools. Instead of setting up magnets to draw students from other areas of the county, the programs would be developed to meet the interest of local parents and would serve local students. Anyone outside the boundary who wanted admission would be required to move into the neighborhood, promoting diversity in housing as well as schools.

"You ask the parents what they want in the school," Johnson said. "What better way to ensure that parents would support it?"

Another idea championed by some parents is to set up special schools fully dedicated to specific magnet programs, unlike the current situation for French immersion, Montessori and talented and gifted students. They attend schools that also have students in the standard curriculum programs.

But the task force report said 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 with a standard curriculum approach has hurt the ability of teachers in the Montessori program to use those tenets.

Russell Butler, a parent who is active in the Montessori program, said the school system should remove that program from the three schools where it is taught--Matthew Henson, Flintstone and Doswell Brooks--and consolidate Montessori students in a separate building. That would allow the three schools to concentrate on a standard curriculum and would help the Montessori program flourish in a setting where all staff members were committed to it.

"When we started [Montessori], there was no way that we could fill an entire building. Now, since the program has been in existence for so long, we've added and added students, and we've overcrowded classrooms," he said.

Butler suggested that if the system designed programs to reflect parents' interests, parent involvement would improve and success would follow. "It's like the consumer model," he said. "If you have a product and people like it, they're going to be vested."

The task force report was particularly critical of the county's traditional academies and academic centers, which are supposed to feature a more rigorous curriculum, including Latin, but with the exception of Beltsville Elementary produce some of the lowest test scores in the county.

Principals and parents at those schools say the programs have been hurt by a deemphasis of the curriculum as the county focuses increasingly on the standard curriculum for the MSPAP tests.

"We used to have an algebraic strain in those days, but now it's all the standard math program," said William Veater, Beltsville Elementary's principal. "It's the same with reading and science."

Joan Roache, a parent activist from Bowie and a task force member, said magnets will work only if they are given the freedom to implement their individual curricula.

"If you have a true commitment to the magnets," Roache said, "then the system has to allow some more flexibility and freedom to allow magnets to do what they're supposed to do."

The task force will continue to study magnets and make more recommendations in the spring. The report suggested that some magnet programs could be eliminated if they did not show improved results.

Members of the Magnet Task Force

The Prince George's County public school system recently completed an internal study of its elementary magnet schools. Members of the task force conducting the study are listed here.

Eugene Adcock, director, research, evaluation and accountability

John Bailer, member, District 9, Community Advisory Council

Norman Bailey, member, District 6 Community Advisory Council

Pat Barr-Harrison, supervisor, foreign language

Kay Birnkoff, chief, division of instruction, Maryland Department of Education

Juanita Braddock, representative, NAACP

John Brown, director, curriculum and program development

Jennifer Bryant, recruitment specialist, magnet office

Ann Davidson, member, District 2, Community Advisory Council

Kelley Evans-Randolph, principal, Tayac Academy

Edythe Flemings Hall, president, Prince George's Community College NAACP

Jean Garrett, member, District 8, Community Advisory Council

Patricia Green, associate superintendent, pupil services

William Greene Jr., director, pupil accounting and school boundaries

Darin Harris, representative, NAACP

Suellen Harris, deputy superintendent, instruction

Glenda Hinton, president, PTA

Eric Hurley, director, education program

Frederick Hutchinson, officer, special projects

Valerie Kaplan, member, District 1, Community Advisory Council

Kathy Kurtz, principal, Thomas Pullen

H.B. Lantz, supervisor, science

Ken Lehman, specialist, research, evaluation and accountability

Jeff Maher, specialist, staff development

Linda Massey, Montessori instruction specialist, magnet office

Tonya Miles, assistant, pupil accounting and school boundaries

Pat Miller, supervisor, reading/English

Rojulene Norris, supervisor, English

Sandra Rawlings, director, curriculum and instruction

Joan Roache, member, District 5, Community Advisory Council

Minerva Sanders, president, PTA

Gloria Sessums, supervisor, talented and gifted program

Harley Smith, supervisor, technology education

Charlotte Stokes, supervisor, social studies department

Leroy Tompkins, associate superintendent, division of instruction

Richard Tyler, member, District 7, Community Advisory Council

Jeanne Washburn, member, District 3, Community Advisory Council

Eleanor White, regional executive director, Region II

Gladys Whitehead, supervisor, math department

Eva Williams, member, District 2, Community Council

Linda Williams, supervisor, library media services

How the Task Force Reached Its Conclusions

To determine how academically successful magnet programs have been, the task force did not look solely at the raw scores from the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program tests. That's because researchers knew that just because a magnet school's test scores were higher than a non-magnet school's, it did not mean the magnet school was better.

Why? Because researchers found that when they look at the OLSAT scores of students countywide--OLSAT being the test first-graders take every November--magnet school students, on average, entered first grade with higher academic ability than non-magnet school students did.

To present a better picture, chief school system researcher Eugene P. Adcock undertook a "value-added study" that measured how much progress students made from first grade to third and fifth grades, when students take the MSPAP exams.

After establishing a mean number for the progress that students countywide had made, Adcock measured each school against that number. Schools that showed a higher level of progress than the mean were given better marks than schools below the mean, even if the latter schools' raw MSPAP scores were higher.

Adcock compares the process to unit pricing at a supermarket. Just because a 16-ounce bottle of shampoo costs more than a 12-ounce bottle does not mean the 16-ounce bottle is a worse deal. In fact, if you determine how much the bottles cost per ounce, the larger bottle might mean more for the money.

But Adcock stresses that he makes no judgment about the schools he studied.

"I just do the research and present the findings," he said. "I've been here 25 years, and no one has ever asked my opinion."