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Magnet Schools

Magnet schools are one of the many choices available to parents in some areas for their child’s education. A magnet school is a public school with a specific focus, such as science or performing arts. Read more about magnet schools in this article.

Magnet schools were started originally to encourage voluntary desegregation of public schools, and today are an important part of the debate over improving the public school system and providing choices for parents and students.

Magnet schools are public, meaning they are supported by tax dollars and cost the families who send their students there nothing extra. Since their beginnings they have been about offering attractive choices to parents, hoping to draw interested students and teachers from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, like a magnet. They may use non-traditional teaching methods, and have a specialization or theme. Some of these specializations can include:

  • Innovative teaching approaches
  • Art
  • Performing arts
  • Environmental education
  • Math
  • Science
  • Technology
  • Languages
  • Humanities

Magnet schools operate on the idea that if students want to be at the school, they will learn better in all of their subjects. Magnet schools also hope to reach students who may learn better in a nontraditional school environment. Students can graduate from magnet schools with special experiences and skills they would not have gained at a regular public school.

Magnet schools are different from charter schools in that they are usually part of the regular public school system’s administration and guidelines. They can be found at all grade levels from kindergarten through high school. Magnet schools may be part of a traditional school, or may stand alone and draw students from all over the district, or even from several districts. They are mainly found in urban environments, since that’s where they started, but their popularity and numbers are growing.

Magnet schools can be somewhat controversial. On the positive side:

  • They have been proven to improve academic performance.
  • They tend to be ethnically diverse.
  • The innovations made in teaching at magnet schools can also benefit the rest of the schools in their district.
  • They ease crowding and improve teacher-student ratios.

People who oppose magnet schools, however, are concerned that:

  • They can be selective. About one-third use selection criteria, such as test scores, to determine who gets in, which may keep out the students who would benefit the most from magnet schools. At the same time, they draw some of the brightest students away from regular public schools and may harm the classroom learning environment that way.
  • They may draw money, good teachers, and other resources away from mainstream public schools where they are badly needed.
  • They often don’t include low income, ESL, or special needs students.

If you are interested in a magnet school, decide what goals you have for your student - what benefits you hope they will gain and what focus you’d like them to have, then see if any schools in your area fit those needs and visit those schools. Before visiting a school, learn all you can about it, and set up an appointment to visit.

Some tips for your visit are:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
  • Notice what the classrooms are like - if the students seem happy and if their work is displayed and is appropriate for their grade level.
  • Notice how the teachers interact with the students and with you, and if they seem respectful, competent, happy, and interested in the students’ well being.
  • Visit the library and find out what kind of technology is available to students, such as computers.
  • Find out about the curriculum, and if it includes arts, music, physical fitness, and time outdoors.
  • Think about how your students will get to the school if the school does not have buses.
  • If your student has special needs, find out if the school is equipped to meet those needs.
  • Notice how the students behave toward each other and the adults, if they seem respectful and generally positive.
  • Pay attention to the buildings and play areas and if they seem clean and safe.
  • Find out how long the school has been around and what its administrators consider to be its successes.

Finally, find out how the magnet school admits students. Most magnet schools can only admit 10 to 20 percent of the students who are interesting in attending them, so it may be difficult to get your child enrolled. While some magnet schools use selection criteria like tests or auditions, others use a lottery system or waiting list. If the school has a waiting list, get your student on it as soon as possible. Because magnet schools sometimes allot spaces by what zone you live in, you may want to consider moving to be in the right zone for the school. In some cases, siblings get preferential enrollment, so once one child is enrolled it may be easier to get the others enrolled.

Magnet schools may be one of several educational options available to your students. Finding the right match for your child’s needs may take work and patience, but by researching the options available you will be prepared to make the best decision for your child.


U.S. Department of Education, Choices for Parents, Magnet School Assistance [online]

Magnet Schools of America, A Brief History of Magnet Schools [online]

Public School Review, What is a Magnet School? [online]

GreatSchools: The Parents Guide to K-12 Success, The School Visit: What to Look For, What to Ask [online]