Last year, the School district of Philadelphia decided to close several schools due to “poor performance”. Displaced students were forced to attend their nearest elementary or high school which, in most cases, meant another underperforming public school. The application deadline for magnet schools like SLA and Masterman had long since passed, but this didn’t really matter since most students would not have had much of a chance anyway.
The gap in quality between comprehensive high schools and magnet schools was not always this wide. In fact, many American communities pride themselves on their local schools, and do not feel the need to create an alternative high school for the “smart” kids. As the schools around us close one by one, SLA and other Philadelphia magnet schools may have to face an uncomfortable question:
Are we the problem?
Like other magnet schools, SLA is a safe place where mentally gifted and accelerated students can thrive without being dragged down by their less-motivated peers. We pull together the most advanced students from all over the city to create a culturally diverse, academically rigorous environment that pushes its students to work hard and fulfill their potential. This makes for a rich high school experience that often leads to admission to college, a wonderful prospect if you’re lucky enough to be accepted.
Students attending magnet schools account for only a fraction of Philadelphia’s high-schoolers. The vast majority of this year’s eighth graders will attend a comprehensive public high school, many of which have a graduation rate of less than 60%.
Pulling the academically gifted students away from local high schools can have a debilitating effect on both the school and its students. A lower number of high-performing students means less funding for AP classes and a lower average score on standardized tests. Some argue that students are less motivated to perform well in school when they don’t have classmates who challenge them. Years of this process leave many schools without adequate resources and students without a bright future.
But is a lack of funding really the problem?
District-wide budget cuts take a toll on all public schools, and even the magnet schools have to find ways to cut costs. Perhaps our problems could be solved by looking at some unquantifiable aspects of the high school experience.
Most high school students complain about being bored in class. Even if you’re fascinated by the topic, class can get to be a drag. Some point fingers at the standardized curriculum, arguing that a text-driven classroom does not encourage students to think critically about the subject material, only to parrot information back on a test. However, the right teacher can turn even the dullest lesson into an engaging experience.
Every student at SLA can name at least one of our teachers who have significantly impacted them at some point. Teachers who are committed to their job and excited to help kids learn can make a lasting difference in a student’s motivation and engagement in class. However, schools continue to perform poorly despite hiring veteran teachers.
Could this mean that the students themselves are the problem?
Some students are driven to succeed while others seem content to just barely get by or not to try at all. Is this is personal choice or are the students behaving according to what their peers, teachers, and community expect of them?
While progress in school is ideally based on merit, even students who outperform their classmates in a comprehensive high school will, in all likelihood, not become as successful as the average magnet school student. With this knowledge, simply attending a neighborhood school can have a negative effect on a student’s desire to succeed. At a comprehensive high school, they will be surrounded with students (and teachers) who are not excited about learning and optimistic about their future.
When such a distinction exists between comprehensive and magnet schools, the latter may seem like a struggling student’s only chance at success. However, a student who does not perform well in middle school will probably not be accepted to a selective high school. As a result, they will not have access to the resources that the school offers such as SAT prep and college counseling.
So, do magnet schools transform students into hardworking, college-ready learners, or do they simply enhance the abilities of those students who were born to succeed?
There’s really only one way to find out, but it can’t happen as long as magnet schools separate the high-achieving students from the rest of Philadelphia’s youth. While these schools give advanced students a chance to further prove their skills, there’s no reason why they can’t do so while attending school with the low-performers.
There’s nothing wrong with magnet schools. The problem is simply that they only exist because the alternatives are not good enough. We need to focus our efforts on improving all of our high schools and making sure every student trusts that their school will provide them with a path to success as long as they choose to walk it.
Unsigned editorials are written and approved by the SLAMedia Editorial Staff. They do not reflect the opinion of Science Leadership Academy and its employees.