Bedford County Board of Education voted Thursday night to make what is now Thomas Intermediate School a magnet school for grades K-5 beginning this fall.
The board's motion directs the school system to ensure that admission criteria for the school are fair, impartial and objective. Betty Farrar, supervisor of elementary education, assured board members that would be the case. She said the local program will be modeled in part on Discovery School in Murfreesboro.
The opening next fall of Learning Way Elementary will require that bus routes and transportation districts be redrawn anyhow, giving a window of opportunity to open a magnet school at the same time. The school system will make all five of Shelbyville's elementary schools K-5, eliminating the current distinction between the three K-3 primary schools and the intermediate school serving grades 4 and 5. That realignment has been talked about for several years, but was formally approved by board members on Thursday just prior to the magnet school discussion.
A magnet school would be open to high-achieving students who meet a strict set of criteria, primarily based on academic test scores. Parents from anywhere in the county whose children meet the criteria could apply to have their children admitted to the school. Admission would be strictly voluntary; no child would be forced to go there.
High-achieving is not the same as gifted, according to Gray. The term "gifted" applies to a certain specific subset of students who are already receiving indivualized education plans, known as IEPs, through the special education program. Farrar said only 2 percent of the student body is identified as gifted. But the net of high-achieving students would be a wider one and would also include many students who aren't now getting any special attention.
Thomas was chosen over East Side, the other most centrally-located school, because of its larger capacity. School Superintendent Ed Gray said that out of 700 surveys sent to elementary school parents, 326 families said they would be interested in having their child attend a magnet school. Since that number doesn't include children who will be kindergarteners or fifth graders next year, the actual number of eligible students could be more than 400, too many for East Side to accommodate.
Gray said the response to the survey indicates that the school's population would represent various income levels and ethnic backgrounds.
"The diversity will be in the school," said Gray.
The requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act have forced educators to focus more and more of their attention on students who are at risk or at the bottom of the achievement scale, according to Gray. NCLB requires that each particular economic, ethnic or educational subgroup have a certain level of proficiency. The effect of NCLB is that educators concentrate on making sure that as many students as possible in each particular demographic pass the required tests. In some cases, that may mean that teachers don't have as much time or opportunity to challenge high-achieving students. The problem is expected to worsen as NCLB regulations require full inclusion of special education students in the classroom.
Gray said teachers do a good job under the existing conditions. But he said a magnet school is intended to benefit all of the various subgroups by making sure that each group gets more opportunity for personal attention.
School board member Ron Adcock, who made the motion to adopt the magnet school concept, said he's heard from some parents who would rather see a gifted program in place at each school. This is particularly true of parents from outside Shelbyville, whose children will require longer travel times to get to the magnet school. Adcock said that might be something to investigate for the future, but the opening of Learning Way Elementary and the re-alignment of elementary grades within Shelbyville made now the right time to put a magnet school program into place, and to open it to any eligible child in the county.
The idea of a magnet school curriculum isn't necessarily to move high-achieving students far past their grade level so much as to take the chance to broaden the scope of what they're learning at their current grade level. At the Discovery School, kindergarteners produced their own audio podcasts.
Critics of the magnet school concept say that it hurts non-magnet schools by siphoning away their best students and most active parents, and that it is elitist and becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for which students will and won't excel.
Gray said the concept isn't meant to deprecate any school and that it should make it easier for each school to best meet the needs of its student population.
School board member Diane Neeley said encouraging parental involvement at every school needs to be a priority.
The motion to approve the magnet school concept passed by voice vote, with Chairman Barry Cooper declaring that the vote had been unanimous.
Admission criteria for the magnet school will be considered by the board next month. Farrar said she'd like for parents to know by March whether their child has been admitted to the magnet school. The school system will also have to announce the districts and transportation routes for the four non-magnet elementary schools.
The combination of the realignment, the new Learning Way facility and the magnet school program will require extensive reshuffling of school personnel. The goal is to have principals in place by March. Teacher reassignment will be determined in April but won't be announced until after TCAP testing has been completed. Teachers will be given the opportunity to request their preferred assignments first, but it's likely that some decisions will have to be made by administrators.