Magnet programs strive toward more equitable selection process


Kyle Crichton

Many magnet programs in MCPS and around the country

By Taylor Haber

In the summer before the 2018-2019 school year, rising fourth-grader Anika Claussen had to make a choice. She could either stay at Bannockburn Elementary School, where she had been a student for the past three years, or she could transfer to her school’s local magnet program at Chevy Chase Elementary School.

“We spoke with some of the parents that had been through the program before,” Anika’s mother Ravina Chaussen said. “It was just weighing all of those experiences and putting them in context. Ultimately, we wanted the decision to be Anika’s.”

Earlier that year, Claussen and other third graders across Montgomery County took the Cognitive Test in Abilities Test. The CogAT’s goal is to determine whether students have the aptitude to enroll in a magnet program. Combined with her grades and standardized test scores, county officials deemed Anika eligible to move to Chevy Chase Elementary; all she had to do was decide if she wanted to go.

“I thought I’d give it a try,” Claussen said. “I did need some more challenging work, I thought. It was a little bit easy at Bannockburn for me.”

Experiences like Anika’s are the ideal example of MCPS’ magnet program, which is meant to provide high achieving students with a chance to receive unique educational resources tailored to their learning level.

Today, there are nine countywide magnet centers at the elementary school level, five at the middle school level and 13 at the high school level.

Depending on a student’s grade, they can opt into a wide array of occupation-oriented pathways, ranging from biomedical sciences and engineering to visual arts and the humanities.

However, when it comes to more equitably evaluating students of minority backgrounds, things are often easier said than done.

White and Asian students make up an average of 35.6% and 27.6%, respectively, of the total student body of the magnet programs in MCPS. Conversely, the African-American and Hispanic populations only comprise an average of 15.1% and 12.8% each.

This disparity can be seen in parts of the county where the majority of the school population comes from a minority background, according to community members. In several cases, the non-magnet track is largely comprised of Hispanic and African-American students, while the magnet level is largely ethnically white and Asian.

Whitman Spanish teacher Kathleen Bartels has seen these discrepancies in her kids’ elementary school magnet program. Bartels, whose two kids go to the non-magnet part of Piney Branch Elementary School, has noticed the jarring ethnicity gaps in the partner program, she said.

“There are two classes of 50 magnet kids, [and] they’re mostly white, even though the school on the whole is very diverse,” Bartels said. “I think that it’s a conversation; it’s very heated.”

Two years ago, the county made significant changes to its magnet testing process. This was in an effort to diminish the disadvantage some minority students may face when applying to magnet schools. The MCPS Central Office has started to take a more proactive stance on the issue, making it mandatory for all third-grade students to take the exam — with the parental option to opt-out — rather than having families choose whether or not to test their children. Prior to this process known as “universal screening,” the majority of children who took the CogAT were White and Asian, leaving fewer spots in the program for Hispanic and African-American students.

“The reason why [universal screening] is important is because we have traditionally served some students in our county through our magnet programs, but for those students, that process, previous to universal screening, was parent-initiated,” said Kurshanna Dean, the Supervisor of the Division of Accelerated and Enriched Instruction. “This decision review looks at all the data of the students from a lens rather than interest.”

Recently, the county has been adopting local norming strategies, a means by which advisors can help lower-income students more easily be accepted into the magnet programs. As of last year, the county has taken initiative to expand its  norming capabilities; now, they aim to move financially disadvantaged students that score high relative to their economic situation into magnet programs.

“What we found was that you really should look at students in the context of their background,” Dean said. The misconception in this county is that the magnet programs are only for the 99th percentile. What they really are, are for the students who do not have access to local academic peers.”

While Dean said these strategies are only in their early stages at the county level, the county has already seen gains in equity. The number of students in magnet programs who currently eat on free and reduced meals has risen 300% over the last year. In recent years, as these younger grades of magnet students progress further into their academic careers, older generations are starting to witness partial — though not yet substantive — change.

“When I came in, I’d say there were three, four, five non-Asian or non-white students. Now, I’d say there isn’t really a lack of representation racially,” said Montgomery Blair High School senior Jessica Ye, a student in Blair’s STEM magnet program. “I think that there is a significant economic lack of diversity; most of the people that get in are fairly well off, and I think that makes sense for the type of people that are able to have access to study materials when they’re younger.”

Before the county changed the magnet school entrance programs, the lack of norming strategies made grades highly homogenous, Ye said. Fortunately, students like Ye have noticed similar changes occurring in magnet programs across the county. As the final students from the less diverse generation graduate this year, Ye thinks there can still be more work done towards making magnet schools more inclusive to students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.

“When I came in, what we heard was this is where kids who are bored in their advanced classes at their middle school or elementary school go,” Ye said. “If you’re just turning it into a gifted program to help people and communities that don’t have these resources, I think that there’s plenty they can do there.”