Some magnets are in the crosshairs

The Magnetism of Superintendent Terry Grier

The great magnets of the Houston ISD -- DeBakey, HSPVA, Carnegie Vanguard, T.H. Rogers -- have nothing to fear from any remodeling of the district's magnet program, Superintendent Terry Grier declared at a media roundtable Tuesday.

Schools that make him go "wow" are in the safe zone as far as he's concerned.

"We're not going to go in and start uncoupling programs that have been very, very successful," Grier said

But somewhere among the 113 sites that call themselves magnets, Grier believes there are several that don't measure up.

Some of those use magnet funds for non-magnet uses, he said. Some are low-performing schools. One has only three students in the magnet program, he said. And those, he believes, need to undergo some changes including possible termination.

While insisting that he welcomes an open discussion of any proposal to amend the magnet program, Grier also expressed concern about some of the reception he's been getting from parents who are worried about changes. "Our staff is not going to make rash decisions," he said.

He did say any magnet program changes might not go into effect by fall 2011, suggesting the district might consider a longer transition time. Parents have a January 8 deadline to submit their applications; they hear back by March 25 and have until April 8 to respond. There's been some parental concern voiced that the schools parents are reviewing now, might now be present in their same form come next year.

Other Grier comments and prognostications:

-- He likes sibling preferences and even in the lottery system required to receive federal funding, the feds "allow" schools to offer this way to keep family members in the same school. If anyone advocates this should be discarded, he would speak against that.

-- Some of the schools within a school will continue. Not all will need to transition to become a dedicated magnet as did Garden Oaks Elementary (which went from a neighborhood school with some Montessori classes to a Montessori school, and not to universal applause).

-- Bringing in an independent third party, Magnet Schools of America, means that no one will be able to say personal bias is slanting the recommendations.

-- As long as music and other fine arts magnets are working well, they will not be dropped.

The district has about $21 million in local funding tied up in its magnets. HISD is getting an additional $11.4 million in federal money to be spent over three years at five schools. Under federal guidelines, those schools must use a lottery system for admission.

Right now, Grier said, HISD principals run their own lotteries. He says parents have told him they've applied for their child to go to a particular magnet, been told there's no space, and then found out that the following day a neighbor was able to get his child into that same magnet school.

"We as a school district cannot accuse charters of skimming and then we engage in the same process in magnet school selection," Grier said.

According to Grier, his staff and Magnet Schools of America are in high gear fact-finding mode. He repeated an oft-expressed seniment from parents' groups, that a goal should be "to try to replicate what works."

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