When it was time to shop for middle schools, Rhonda Sampson was looking for something a little different. White Oak, her neighborhood school, was fine, but she had heard about a program starting this fall at A. Mario Loiederman.
It combines art, music, dance and drama with top-notch academics. Sampson loved that there was a "right-brained" school for children like her son Preston, 12, whose passions are drama and movement. The fact that it was a magnet school? Even better.
This fall educators in Montgomery County will be counting on families like Sampson's to help them redefine magnet schools. The school system has created the Middle School Magnet Consortium, a cluster of campuses, including Loiederman, where the goal is to offer a magnet program to all students.
The county has long offered families the opportunity to send middle school students to magnet programs, but enrollment has been limited. This year, that will change.
In their new incarnations, Argyle Middle School in Silver Spring will become a magnet school for information technology and Parkland in Rockville a magnet school for aerospace studies. A. Mario Loiederman, in Silver Spring, will offer a creative and performing arts program.
"This is redefining magnets,'' said Martin Creel, project director for the consortium. "It means that all students have access, not just those from a certain geographic area."
Magnet schools offer specially focused study programs. In the past, they have been used in desegregation efforts to entice students -- often from wealthier, less diverse areas -- to attend a school outside of their neighborhood, thus improving the racial and socioeconomic balance of a school.
The "program within a program" model will continue at other Montgomery County middle schools. But critics say that this model provides an elite education to a select few.
Earlier this year Superintendent Jerry D. Weast came under fire from black parents who questioned the system's process for admitting students to the traditional middle school magnet program.
They focused on the programs at Takoma Park and Eastern, which limit admissions and base acceptance on test scores, teacher recommendations and other criteria. They said the process was flawed because few black and Hispanic students were being admitted.
The parents argued that there were two tracks: one for white and Asian students in the magnet program and a second for black and Hispanic students not in the program.
The aim of the middle school consortium, funded by a $7.2 million federal grant, is to eliminate any perception that there is a two-track system. The three magnet campuses will draw from economically, ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods, and the goal is to make sure that all students are held to the same high standards.
Teachers and administrators have made a three-year commitment to the schools, though students are free to transfer.
In the spring, students who lived within the three schools' attendance boundaries were allowed to choose the one they wanted to attend.
On a recent night, more than 50 parents gathered at Wheaton High School for updates on the program at A. Mario Loiederman. Principal Alison Serino tried to calm mothers and fathers worried about whether construction on the revamped campus, home to about 810 students, would be completed in time for the start of school Monday.
"The furniture is in; textbooks are arriving every day,'' she said. And with Weast's traditional news conference on the first day of school slated to be held at Loiederman, she said she was confident the work would be finished on time.
Laura Lisano, whose daughter Melissa, 11, will be a seventh-grader at Loiederman, said she is eager for the school to open and is happy that there's a campus close to home that melds the arts with academics.
"She's very excited," Lisano said.
School system officials say that such enthusiasm will be critical to the programs' success. They hope that the three campuses will serve as models of how to invigorate Montgomery County's entire middle school program, said Linda Ferrell, director of middle school instruction.
"I have been excited by how excited the students and parents are,'' said Erick Lang, director of the school system's Department of Enriched and Innovative Programs. "I feel like they see this as a very special opportunity for their students."
Incoming sixth-graders will be the first to take advantage of the magnet offerings, though seventh- and eighth-graders at the three schools will be able to sample the new curriculum.
The concept has been a tremendous draw.
All 678 incoming sixth-graders will attend the school that was their first choice, system officials said. In addition, 80 seats at each school were open to students from outside the immediate neighborhoods. More than 500 students applied for those 240 spots.
Michelle George was among the parents attracted by the program. She lives minutes from Banneker Middle School in Burtonsville but enrolled her son Khalil, 11, at Loiederman, despite what she expects will be a 20-minute slog through traffic. She said the school's performing arts focus was too good an opportunity to pass up, and she wanted her son to be at a less crowded school.
"I like the fact he'll be learning through movement,'' she said. "It's a whole new environment, and that will be good."
Angelo Mangano, whose daughter Miranda, 10, will be a sixth-grader at Loiederman this fall, said he is confident that she'll flourish in a program that encourages creativity.
"I'm extremely happy,'' Mangano said. "It's a great idea, and I think it will give all students a way to stretch themselves."
At a recent student orientation at Argyle Middle School, the information technology magnet school, about 80 incoming sixth-graders explored the maze of classrooms. Argyle now has five computer science teachers, four more than last school year, and it has four computer labs, up from two.
The students' first impressions of Argyle: It's big, confusing and intimidating.
Seray Bayoh, 11, said she had a hard time choosing between Loiederman and Argyle. She loves the arts, but she decided that Argyle, with its science and technology focus, would be better for her, because she plans to become a pediatrician.
She has loved being on summer vacation, but she said that on Monday she will be ready to be a sixth-grader at Argyle. "I can't wait,'' she said.