San Diego Unified has long championed magnet schools, which focus studies around a theme such as Mandarin Chinese or the arts, and are meant to draw students from across the school district, instead of just one neighborhood. They are a part of its strategy to integrate schools across ethnic and economic lines and to boost enrollment and interest in a school.

But the school district is reconsidering whether all its current magnets are serving their purpose. Some are so popular within their neighborhoods that they have few spots for students outside the area, making them “magnets” in name only. Others never implement the specialized programs that were advertised as their magnet focus. A San Diego Unified report gives several examples:

Fulton Spanish and Filipino Language Enrichment Magnet was advertised but did not open. Fulton is currently considering a music technology theme that has been part of the Fulton program for several years and will continue to bring students from the surrounding neighborhood to the school. … Parents who apply for enrollment at Grant Magnet School are surprised to learn that for the 2008-2009 school year ten students of the 1,135 students who apply to attend through Enrollment Options are enrolled.

The report recommends that both Fulton and Grant cease to be magnets, along with several other schools that are either too full or fail to offer real magnet programs. It proposes a new, systematic way to evaluate annually whether or not a school is a magnet, and creates a second category of “innovation schools” that are not magnets, but offer unique programs that could be marketed by San Diego Unified. It also proposes that under-enrolled schools such as Cadman Elementary seek to become magnets to bring in more students.

The question of whether a magnet is really a magnet has a financial impact. Magnet schools get federal funding but some need additional financial support from San Diego Unified, said school board member Mitz Lee. Bolstered funding may not make sense if a magnet program is offering something that should exist in every school, Lee said, such as science or music.

“There are a lot of added costs the district will shoulder,” she said. “But can you really say it’s a magnet?”

San Diego Unified staffers are briefing the school board on the report today to get feedback before making recommendations about which magnets to keep and which to cut.

EMILY ALPERT

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