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Tisha Berg

Explore the benefits of one interesting alternative to public schools and pricey private institutions, and learn how a magnet school can help your child.

Few things preoccupy a new parent's thoughts as much as worrying about how best to educate her little one. As the pre-K years wind down, local elementary schools, other parents and well-meaning relatives may all pitch in with their opinions about the most effective ways to teach children and in which type of schools they will thrive best.

All these opinions might leave you wondering about the available elementary school options, especially if you're considering magnet schools. What is a magnet school? Is it a good option for your child? Learning the details of magnet schools could help you make the best decison for your family.

What Is a Magnet School?
Magnet schools are free public schools that are operated by a particular school district or group of districts. They offer an educational model based around a certain theme, such as technology, performing arts or languages, explains Tanya Anton, a public education consultant and author of a series of guidebooks that help parents navigate the wide array of public school choices in Los Angeles. Magnet schools are court-ordered educational choice programs -- unlike charter schools, which generally operate autonomously from school districts and teacher unions. "Magnet schools are voluntary integration programs designed to address the past harms of racial isolation by offering students a specialized, themed educational focus in a racially diverse environment," Anton says.

How Do Magnet Schools Work?
The early concept of what eventually became magnet schools was based on the desire to bring educational equality to public schools in the 1970s when schools were in the process of navigating the aftermath of desegregation. Magnet school advocates favored a more hands-on, alternative educational system that allowed for racial diversity and a student-focused approach that works with individual academic and social strengths. Some school districts have special departments or committees that specifically oversee programs like magnet schools. These departments may offer support and various types of assistance to parents, teachers, students and school administrators, notes Keith H. Abrahams III, the executive director of Student Integration Services in the Los Angeles Unified School District. The main goal of his department "is providing a quality experience for its students, schools and communities," he says.

Students are generally admitted to magnet schools via a lottery system, to which families submit a detailed application in the year prior to anticipated enrollment at the school. Lottery rules may vary across schools, and student acceptances are often influenced by factors such as race, neighborhood demographics and whether or not a student already has a sibling attending the school, Anton explains. Parents can increase the chances of their family being selected in the lottery by applying to a school multiple times. Magnet schools often employ a point system that allows preferential consideration to families who have previously applied.

What Are the Benefits of a Magnet School?
Like any school program, some magnet schools are great and "can foster deeper connections to an area of study or encourage passion and potential in an unexpected area of study, while other magnet programs may be brand new and unproven or otherwise unexceptional," Anton says. Magnet Schools of America explains that the diverse student bodies at many establishments allow children to learn more about other cultures. They can also be exposed to individualized curricula, specialized teachers and more opportunities for community involvement.

If your child has a strong interest in a particular field -- be it the performing arts, science or any other interest -- you may want to consider a magnet school that will help cultivate that passion. Check out options in your area and and see if any could be a good fit. Take a tour of a nearby school, talk to teachers and students, visit online ranking sites and read parent reviews. Doing research and being informed about a particular magnet school's specific policies, guiding principles and general student atmosphere is the best way to help determine whether or not a magnet school is the right fit for your child's education.

For more on different types of schools, read Types of Schools: What's Best for Your Child?

Tisha Berg has been a freelance content writer and desktop publisher since 1997, with articles on family life, healthy living and parenting appearing on Working MotherAboutOneLifescript and United Way. Tisha holds a bachelor's degree in theater history from Hunter College in New York City and is also certified hypnotherapist.

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