MCPS should look to the Magnet

March 17, 2005, midnight | By Pria Anand | 19 years, 3 months ago

Program demonstrates the best ways to foster success

This year, Blair's Magnet Program boasts four finalists in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search and will be featured in an upcoming issue of The Washington Post Magazine. Last year, the average Magnet SAT score was estimated at almost 400 points above that of the rest of the county by the MCPS Department of Shared Accountability. And for the past 10 years, the Magnet has had more National Merit semifinalists than any other school in the state.

Now in its twentieth year, the Magnet has evolved into a program that is inarguably successful. And now more than ever - with the nation searching for means to ensure student success and the National Governors' Association's recent decision to institute a $42 million dollar overhaul of public schools - the Magnet's achievements should encourage school systems across the country to follow suit. In an age where standardized testing has become the basis of education reform, the nation's educators should instead look to successful programs like the Magnet as models for improvement in order to ensure the success of their own students.

Identifying a problem, offering no solution

President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act marks one of the most destructive trends in public education. Instead of granting schools the resources to aid their students to success, NCLB consumes valuable funding for standardized tests. Although the act has been quick to identify problems in student achievement, it has yet to offer an effective solution.

Instead, NCLB forces educators to waste classroom time teaching to the tests and drains funding from the over-extended schools that need it the most. Rather than continually monitoring progress with statewide tests that are inherently unable to take individual concerns into consideration, the nation should be equipping its schools to foster communities of teachers and students with the resources to not only identify students in need of assistance but also offer them the help they need to succeed.

A school within a school

This school year, Blair hosts 3,323 students but only 12 guidance counselors. Without guidance counselors who have the resources to identify students who are struggling, it is easy for students to fall through the cracks. Teachers are only able to assess a student's progress in one class at best, and in a county where the average class size hovers at just above 25 students, according to the MCPS Department of Shared Accountability, even this safeguard may not be feasible.

In the Magnet, however, two Magnet counselors are able to regularly consult with the Magnet's 18 full-time teachers in order to ensure that students have the support they need, especially during their challenging freshman and sophomore years. Within the walls of the Magnet office, teachers are able to discuss a student's progress across disciplines in a support system that Magnet math teacher Nannette Dyas likens to a concerned family — one that retains close to 100 percent of its students from year to year, according to Magnet Program Coordinator Eileen Steinkraus.

This focus is intensified by the Magnet's practice of "blocking" Magnet classes. As they transition into high school, students are able to interact with a consistent group of teachers and other students. This system is one advocated by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, which cites a relationship between blocking students and increased student achievement during the otherwise overwhelming early years of high school.

In order to pursue this concept of a smaller "school within a school," Blair and the other schools composing the Downcounty Consortium have instituted a program of career academies, which seek to create smaller communities of students based on common interests. Such programs are promising, but substantial resources are needed to ensure that the academies are equipped over the next several years to deliver the "smaller learning communities" they have advertised.

"Personal help"

Equally promising is an MCPS initiative that will fund an additional 175 new teachers over the next year in order to reduce class sizes, the first reduction of its kind in over 20 years, according to the MCPS Department of Management, Budget and Planning. Within the Magnet, this is already manifested in upper-level elective classes, some of which host as few as four or five students. Long touted as the common-sense solution to underachievement, smaller classes have increased motivation and access. "The smaller classes let people get more personal help with difficulties," explains Magnet junior Joe Dario, adding that in his 10-person Analytical Chemistry class, the individual attention he receives sometimes prompts him to do
extra reading in preparation.

For senior Abigail Fraeman, one of the Magnet's 2005 Intel Finalists, the benefits of this focused attention extended beyond the classroom when she began searching for an internship in which she could pursue her Intel project. Instead of seeking out one of the two Career Center coordinators accommodating the needs of Blair's entire population, Fraeman was able to locate a research site that matched her interests by consulting with Magnet research teacher Glenda Torrence. Once Fraeman expressed an interest in conducting a research project at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., Torrence was able to provide her with a list of specific contacts taken from previous projects.

Regardless of the resources available to her, Fraeman committed 280 hours to an unquestionably exceptional project. Still, students cannot achieve without the tools for success. Adapting a structure intended for 400 students to a school system of over 130,000 will be neither straight long-term change in this direction, students with the potential to progress may never be given
the opportunity to do so.

Pria Anand. Pria is a senior. She loves Silver Chips, movies and, most likely, you. More »

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