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Five San Diego magnet schools will divvy up more than $10 million in federal funds, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Education.

The three-year grants serve new magnets such as Barnard, Birney and Joyner elementary schools, older programs at Johnson Elementary and the John Muir School, and help kick start the dreamed-of Millenial Tech Middle School, planned to open in 2008.

With roughly $3.5 million of those dollars pouring into the schools this year alone, San Diego Unified has received the fifth-highest total nationwide, according to a district press release.

Birney principal Amanda Hammond-Williams welcomed television crews onto her school’s Mid-City campus today to spread the word. Hammond-Williams talked up technology as the biggest benefit of the funds. Currently, the school has a 25-seat Macintosh computer lab that helps kids learn to type, research reports, and play a music education game that’s “like a video game with Beethoven,” she said.

“It’s not about plugging kids into a computer and just letting them have at it,” she cautioned, citing the risks of the Internet. (Last year, the school discovered a third-grader had a MySpace account, she said.) “But the technology is a wonderful plus.”

Using the new tools, Hammond-Williams aims to get Birney students typing by second grade — instead of fourth — and using a mouse by kindergarten.

The money will also stack more books on the shelves of Birney’s library, recently beautified by Proposition MM funds. Hammond-Williams estimated that the school hadn’t received a library grant for three years.

And the principal hopes the funds can help close the gap between the affluent and not-so-affluent students the magnet attracts. Fifty more students enrolled in Birney this year, after the school became a magnet, she said.

Magnets are a growing part of the district’s strategy to retain dwindling San Diego students. Some have skipped the district as housing costs surge in the city. Others have opted for charter schools. San Diego Unified’s 34 magnets offer a range of special programs, from Mandarin Chinese at Barnard Elementary to dance at Valencia Park Elementary.

— EMILY ALPERT

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