Levine: Magnet schools shine a spotlight that reaches all the kids in the district

Principal Jill Levine in a class at Normal Park Lower School in this 2010 file photo. Levine has been chosen to spend a year in Washington, D.C., in a principal leadership program.
Principal Jill Levine in a class at Normal Park Lower School in this 2010 file photo. Levine has been chosen to spend a year in Washington, D.C., in a principal leadership program.

When John first came to my school, he was a sixth- grader who missed 68 days of school in the previous year and was reading at the second-grade level. We tried all the conventional ways to keep him in school - home visits, police visits, court appearances - but nothing worked.

I even tried to bribe him to stay in school; if he could make it to class for the entire week, all five days, I would give him a candy bar. But that didn't work. Every Friday I was the one eating the Baby Ruths. He missed more than 30 days that first semester.

At the beginning of the second semester that year, I walked into the auditorium to watch the rehearsal of a student musical production and there I found John in the balcony. Someone had thought to make him the spotlight guy for the musical, and he loved it.

To do that job, however, he had to attend every rehearsal and he had to learn to read a script so he would know when and where to shine the light. All of the sudden, those goals were now achievable for him, and he finally accepted the responsibility of being a student. After he became the spotlight guy, John didn't miss a single day of school for the rest of the year.

The school John attended, Normal Park Museum Magnet School, is a public school designed around a specialized theme. Magnet schools are often created with federal funds under the premise that when the cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all approach doesn't work, it's not the child's fault.

Instead, we try to teach in ways that children want to learn because we have found that is the way they learn more and at a faster pace. Research has shown that magnet schools keep students more engaged - students are less likely to be absent or skip class - and provide more peer support for academic achievement.

School performance is not just about covering the walls in data. That is important - Normal Park consistently outperforms state averages - but does not get at the root of education. Schools need to shine a spotlight on children, spark their interest in a way they hadn't seen before, and help them start to find themselves.

Here in Chattanooga, parents are standing in line to get in to magnet schools and there are nowhere near enough spots to meet the demand. This year, the number of students who did not gain entrance to a magnet school in Hamilton County is almost three times as large as those who did.

And for good reason. John became a student who now takes advantage of the opportunities in front of him. When I saw him at the start of the next school year, I went straight to him and said that the next musical will be an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. I asked whether he would work the spotlight again. After all, I figured that I had him pegged now, I knew how to fix his attendance.

Instead, he looked at me and politely said, "No ma'am." Stunned, I asked why. His response: "Because I want to be in it."

His story ends on a perfect note. He was in every school musical afterward, had great attendance, and graduated from eighth-grade reading on level.

All over the country, magnet schools have been doing this for decades now, well outside of a media spotlight that focuses on the educational fads of the day. But the federal funding for magnet schools - which was used to start the Normal Park Museum Magnet School in 2001 - has always been kicked around and pushed aside. With the current change in leadership at the U.S. Department of Education and a new president on the horizon, educators are worried about the direction that federal education policy will take.

It's time now to shine a light on what works, and for everyone to recognize magnet programs for the high quality choices they offer students and their parents. But don't just take my word for it. Take John's story instead. Like John, every struggling student deserves his or her turn on stage.

Jill Levine is the principal at Normal Park Museum Magnet School. She just completed a one-year term with the U.S. Department of Education as a Washington Principal Ambassador Fellow.