"Alternative schools" is a phrase heard in educational circles with ever-increasing frequency. The desire among many educators to free students jaded by the conventional system of American public schools has given rise to scores of new developments in both the public and private educational domains. One approach that has been the recipient of much attention in the last several years is the concept of magnet schools.

A magnet school, to use the term in its broadest sense, is a school that is open to students throughout a given school district, and, by virtue of some unique program or a special curriculum, "attracts" students to it like a magnet. Its inherent role as an agent of centralization in the large city school district has made the magnet school a key element in the implementation of several recent desegregation plans.

This paper shall deal chiefly with one such system of magnet schools, that of the Dallas Independent School District, Dallas, Texas; frequent references to the magnet schools of Houston and Cincinnati will be made for comparison and contrast. Predictably, the magnet schools in these cities have achieved a measure of success but have encountered some rather significant problems. The nature of the particular problems is remarkably similar between the systems in the various cities, so that solutions to one city's magnet schools' problems would apparently be universally applicable. (Literature consulted in research has not revealed the existence of any magnet school systems in the U.S. besides those in Dallas, Houston, and Cincinnati; however, a St. Louis magnet school system is in the planning stages.)1

Since about 1970, the Dallas Independent School District had tried out several plans for desegregation in response to a court order handed down by U.S. District Court Judge William M. Taylor, Jr. In spite of new plans practically every year (and the associated confusion among students, parents, and, yes, even teachers), it was judged that integration was not being satisfactorily achieved. On March 10, 1976, a new order was given by Judge Taylor, outlining a plan that was to go into effect in August, 1976 – five months later. This plan combined large-scale busing and encouragement of majority-to-minority transfers with the establishment of magnet schools.2 For each magnet school, an optimum enrollment level was set, and a student ratio of 47.2% white, 42.5% black, and 10.3% Mexican-American was called for.3 Enrollment in these magnets was to be voluntary and, in most cases, non-selective.4 All applicants were to be accepted until each ethnic group's quota was filled. (For example, if a magnet school's desired enrollment were set at 1000, the first 472 white applicants, the first 425 black applicants, and the first 103 Mexican-American applicants would be accepted.)

The Dallas magnet schools (as of the 1976–'77 school year) comprise a Montessori school, three vanguard schools, three academies, a school for the talented and gifted,5 four magnet high schools, and a somewhat special case – the Skyline High School and Career Development Center.6

The Amelia Earhart Montessori School encourages learning by discovery and emphasizes each student's individuality.

The vanguard schools are for students in grades 4 – 6. One of these, the Mark Twain Fundamental School, takes an essentialist approach: the "Three R's" are emphasized. There is much concentration on scientific studies and research methods. The Maynard Jackson Center for Individually Guided Education is a vehicle for many of the relatively new innovations in education: "self-direction, multi-age grouping, non-graded classes, team teaching and individualized instruction," as well as mastery learning, creative arts instruction, and tutoring programs. Various types of modern equipment are used in this reconstructionist-inspired school. Finally, there is the Sidney Lanier Center for Expressive Arts, which is particularly existentialist in its goals: it calls for "self-expression leading to self-understanding." Activities at Lanier include a "Potpourri Hour . . . including African languages, stagecraft, and science workshops," a cultural center, creative expressive arts, a bilingual program, and a school newspaper.

Academies are for students in grades 7 and 8. The Oliver Wendell Holmes Classical Academy offers students an opportunity to study any of five foreign languages, music, art, or mathematics; experts or professionals in these fields often serve as guest instructors in this perennialist school. The Pearl C. Anderson Career Exploration Academy takes a progressivist approach – it offers, in addition to traditional middle-school instruction, an opportunity for students to venture into aspects of various careers – exploring and finding out what professions or vocations suit them best. They go on frequent field trips and are visited by professionals from the community. They are given hands-on experience with the tools of various trades. Finally, the Sequoyah Environmental Science has a unique curriculum dealing with nature – forestry, horticulture, outdoor recreation, and so forth. Classes and field trips in the wilderness are frequent for Sequoyah students.

The K.B. Polk Center for Advanced Studies is an exception to the general magnet school policy of non-selectivity. Grade 4 – 8 students of high intelligence or aptitude are accepted into various special programs generally unavailable to students of their age, such as "physics, civics, chemistry, meteorology, . . . archeology . . ., logic instruction, creative activities, and debating."7

The magnet high schools are for students in grades 9 – 12. The Transportation Institute prepares students for the automotive industry. Located in an automobile dealership, the school offers instruction in both the salesmanship and mechanics of cars.8 The Arts Magnet High School gives training to those interested in music, art, drama, and dance.9 The High School for the Health Professions offers instruction and practical experience in the fields of medicine, dentistry, and nursing.10 Finally, the Business and Management Center gives students seeking college degrees in the fields of business and management a headstart, as well as preparing those seeking office jobs immediately upon graduation in business skills and practices.11

The Skyline High School and Career Development Center is a special case, because it was established long before the court desegregation order of March, 1976 – classes at Skyline began in August, 1970. The school consists of an ordinary high school working hand-in-hand with over twenty so-called "clusters", all in one physical facility. Each cluster is a sort of mini-magnet school. Among the clusters at Skyline are mathematics, science, construction, plastics, "Man and His Environment" (not environmental science, but more along the lines of sociology), photography, television, architecture, world languages, English, electronics, journalism, computer science, aeronautics, food, child care, speech, and others. Each of the present Dallas magnet schools was originally one or more clusters at Skyline. The Career Development Center is selective, but in practice very few applicants are rejected.

The magnet school programs in Houston and Cincinnati are fairly similar. In Houston, a court order was handed down in 1970, which called for the pairing of schools with different ethnic proportions to achieve integration. This plan was very unsuccessful, mainly due to "white flight" (both total enrollment and the proportion of minority students dropped in the paired schools), so a "Task Force for Quality Integrated Education" was set up late in 1974. After much research and community feedback, the task force developed its plan using magnet schools to achieve integration. (The ratios in Houston were set up to be 42.6% black, 37.1% white, and 20.3% Mexican-American.) The program, presented by the task force to the Board of Education in February, 1975, included four types of programs: add-on programs ("programs are added to the regular school curriculum"), school within a school programs (a group of students meet apart from their "normal" classmates within a regular school facility), separate and unique schools (an existing school is radically changed to suit special needs) and cluster center programs (each specializing in one area). Among the great number of individual Houston magnet schools proposed were many paralleling Dallas schools (e.g., vanguard schools, the Literary and Art Academy, the Ecology and Outdoor Education Academy, and the School for Business Administration), but quite a few without Dallas counterparts (among them a School for Engineering, a Petrochemical Careers program, and a Physical Development Academy).12 Implementation of the 4.5-million-dollar Houston plan began in fall, 1975 (a year before Dallas' program). In the 1976–'77 school year, Houston magnet programs involved 3336 students out of a district-wide total of about 211,00014 (only about 1.6%).

The case of Cincinnati is somewhat different, in that its magnet schools were set up not directly in response to a court desegregation order, but in an attempt to prevent the filing of a threatened lawsuit by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) that the NAACP hoped would then result in such a court order.

The Cincinnati magnet school program began in fall, 1973, and by the 1975–'76 school year involved 11,000 of the district's 68,000 students (about 16%). In these schools a ratio very close to 50% white, 50% black is maintained. Among the many magnet schools in Cincinnati are a Creative and Performing Arts School and a German alternative school (which are selective) and a Math and Science Academy (which is not), all of which are enjoying great success. (A visitor to the German school [which at that time had no students older than third-grade age] " . . . remarked that it was just like walking into a school in Hamburg.")15

All of these magnet school programs have a lot going for them, but, quite inevitably, every system has met with difficulties, some of them rather formidable.

The primary problem is one of numbers. Are the quotas being filled; and, even if they are, is district-wide desegregation being achieved? The answer appears to be no to both questions in all three cities. In Dallas a phenomenon of the following nature was reported (with particular reference to the High School for the Health Professions). When the desired ethnic proportions for the school were announced, many white students who might otherwise have shown interest did not apply due to fear, prejudice, or whatever reasons they might have had, while interested blacks, many accustomed to being in the minority anyway, responded in great numbers. Early reports of this trend compounded the problem for indecisive whites and turned more away; while many additional blacks, seeing the trend, began applying so that they could join the crowd and "be with their friends," often regardless of their interest in the school's curriculum. Predictably, the black quota filled quickly, while the white quota never came close to being filled. Now that the black quota has been filled, new black applicants, many of them truly qualified and interested in what the school offers, must be turned away (at least until some of those blacks who admittedly came for a "free ride" drop out or are failed). (Whether this phenomenon occurred in other Dallas magnet schools is not known.) Meanwhile the NAACP has already appealed Judge Taylor's decision, for they claim that "it did not go far enough in promoting integration." The Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has not decided the NAACP's case.16

Houston magnet schools have not met with total success, either. The 3336 students enrolled during the first year compare to the 3850 anticipated for that year; at the beginning of the second year (fall, 1976), about 3500 were enrolled, yet the U.S. District Court was calling for an enrollment of 5000 by January, 1977.17 Even with 5000, the effect on a school district comprising over 200,000 students is minimal. Houston school officials themselves admit the magnet school program is merely "an attempt to move toward integration on a small scale." Even among those students in magnet schools, actual intercultural contact is low. ("At the elementary level. . . , a large proportion of the students in the magnet school program . . . join students of differing backgrounds for only one week a year.")18

Even the Cincinnati magnet schools, apparently successful in their pursuit of integration, have received serious criticism in that area. The NAACP did file in May, 1974, the lawsuit that by setting up the magnet schools school officials were trying to avert. The NAACP charges that among the 16% of the total district-wide enrollment claimed by the school administration to belong to the magnet schools are "1114 vocational students and 2839 pupils in a college preparatory school that has been operating for decades. . . . without them, the number of students in the magnet program dips to about 10 percent." As for racial integration per se, the charges are even more scathing. Robert S. Brown, an ex-member of Cincinnati's school board, observed that many white students were coming to the magnet schools to get away from schools where they were in the minority, while many blacks came from all-black schools. This actually made segregation worse in the regular schools, he claimed; and he supported his statement with the statistic that in a five-year period during which the magnet school program was established, "the number of regular schools that are racially integrated according to a standard set by the U.S. Office of Civil Rights is down to thirteen from twenty-three."19

A serious concern that the magnet schools have caused is resentment among teachers and principals of regular schools. Principals and teachers are reluctant to let their good students go; principals don't want their best teachers to leave, either. This possessiveness and pride in their own school's abilities have caused principals of some Dallas schools to resort to such tactics as not telling students when magnet school recruiters were coming to their schools and having their counselors advise students away from magnet schools. In March, 1977, Dallas school Superintendent Nolan Estes appointed a seven-member task force to research and attempt to solve the problem.20 In Cincinnati, the same jealousy is reported; principals and teachers at regular schools there are especially angered by the fact that some $1.5 million of Cincinnati's school budget has had to be routed to the magnet schools, causing increased class size and reduction of services such as maintenance in their own schools.21

Most magnet schools suffer from poor physical facilities. Educators Daniel Levine and Connie Moore identified "sufficient planning time" as an ingredient necessary to the successful implementation of a magnet school program.22 Between Judge Taylor's March, 1976, order mandating the Dallas magnet schools and the beginning of the school year in which they were to open was a mere five months; five months was also the time between the appointment of the Houston magnet school Administrative Task Team and the beginning of the Houston magnet schools' operation.23 This was just not sufficient time to raise funds for and build gleaming new buildings. Thus, old school buildings were converted into magnet schools. In an "appraisal of progress" of the Dallas magnet schools completed in February, 1977, it was noted that the Transportation Institute had inadequate classrooms, cafeteria, and recreation areas; insufficient storage facilities and teaching space, and poor air quality; that the High School for the Health Professions suffered from the "flimsy characteristics" of and the lack of lockers in the former furniture store in which part of it is housed, insufficient lunchroom facilities, and a "poor teaching environment" in a former elementary school gymnasium that now serves as a classroom there. The Arts Magnet has a shortage of classrooms. All the magnets lack adequate laboratories and suffer from electrical overloads.24

Houston had to use old schools, too – so many of its magnet school programs, as described earlier, were designed to work along with an old school's programs in the same building instead of "taking over" the building; but even to implement these programs, it was necessary to locate "school buildings with vacant rooms stemming from shrinking district enrollment."25

In Cincinnati, the Creative and Performing Arts school is located in an old Hebrew school and part of a Jewish community center, but has outgrown these facilities and plans to move to Cincinnati's abandoned Union Terminal. The Science and Math Academy is located on the fourth floor of an inner-city junior high school.26

These are the major problems, but a few interesting, even amusing, minor ones have come up. One of these is particular to Dallas and concerns the Skyline Career Development Center. As mentioned previously, the existing magnet schools were originally Skyline clusters. Next year (1977–'78) at least another three clusters will move out,27 as a Human Services Magnet and a Law and Public Administration Magnet are planned.28 Skyline students have asked: Was Skyline built only to eventually self-destruct? B.J. Stamps, Dallas' Assistant Superintendent in charge of Career Development, answers that as clusters move out of Skyline, remaining ones will expand and, more importantly, new clusters will be started there.29 Another problem that was unforeseen is that students can be so spoiled by the special offerings of a magnet school program that they will refuse to re-enter the traditional curriculum. An eighth grader at Dallas' Holmes Classical Academy, upon realizing that no regular or even magnet high school offered further special programs in the classics, vowed to flunk eighth grade in order to remain at Holmes!30

How are these problems, serious and otherwise, to be solved? The literature offers little in the way of solutions, mainly because the magnet schools are so new that educators have hardly had time to identify the problems, much less solve them. Many magnet school advocates have at least made an effort to show that the problems are not so bad as they seem. Concerning integration, Houston points to "one school that changed from 1 1/2% to 9 1/2% white and another from 13% to 28% white."31 In Cincinnati, magnet supporters mention that only forty-nine Cincinnati schools had enrollments of 90% or more of one race in 1975–'76, compared to fifty-two the previous year.32 Recruitment problems? Some point out that by removing the cream of the crop from regular schools, a new layer of students rises to the top and gains interaction with teachers previously denied them.33 As for physical facilities, many magnet schools have within their crumbling walls tens of thousands of dollars worth of the most modern equipment.

Yes, there are many good things to say about the magnet schools, but why not make them even better by righting the wrongs, by solving the problems that have been identified instead of pretending they don't exist?

Dallas' problem of white quotas not filling up, I believe, will correct itself in time. After sufficiently many students attending the school for a "good time" drop out, the remaining students will no longer be held back. Then the school's standards will go up, and potential applicants will begin to see the school in terms of the quality of the programs it offers and will be less hesitant about ethnic considerations. However, until then, many capable blacks will be rightfully frustrated as they are turned away while whites are accepted regardless of aptitude. Perhaps the administration should allow at least some selectivity in admission to the programs now that the initial enrollment process is (somewhat unsatisfactorily) completed. Meanwhile, it seems likely that the NAACP will win its case in Cincinnati and court-ordered desegregation will be called for (if it hasn't already) – considering the city's forty-nine essentially one-race schools; and Cincinnati will find itself in the same boat as Dallas and Houston – which will hopefully be able to lend advice from experience.

As for the recruitment problems, principals and teachers will just have to be convinced that a student's educational opportunities mean more than school pride. This is much more easily said than done – but good publicity by magnet school advocates and two-way open communication between magnet school and regular school people can help. Meanwhile, if voters can persuade legislators to allocate more funds to education so that magnet schools need not take away from other schools, it will help matters – but that is much, much more easily said than done.

The solution to the facilities problem seems clear enough – realizing that the magnet schools had to at least start off in old facilities, at least get started building new facilities so that the schools can move after a year or two. The problem here, again, is money. But this seems such a pressing need that certainly a school district could rearrange its budgetary priorities to attend to it.

It must be stressed that the attempt in this paper has not been to pick the magnet schools apart, but to work towards perfecting them. In the humble opinion of this writer, magnet schools have represented one of the most important positive strides that have been made by educators recently. It is important gradually to get away from thinking of magnet schools as a convenient way of complying with court orders for desegregation – a role they have served out of necessity – but more in terms of their purely educational capabilities. They have made career education, education for exceptional students (at both extremes), and new educational innovations and techniques realities where they could not have otherwise been offered by a public school system. The problems encountered in the first years of magnet school operations should not discourage educators from giving them a significant place in the educational structure of the future.


     1 Linda Eardley, "Cincinnati's Magnet Schools," Integrated Education, XIV, 5 (Sept. Oct., 1976), p. 14.
     2 James M. Banovetz, "Dallas - Fort Worth," World Book Year Book (1977).
     3 "Limited Student Stations Stiil Available at Some Magnet High Schools ... Hurry!" Up-Date: Network Newsletter, Feb. 7 & 14, 1977, p. 4.
     4 "Questions and Answers About the Magnets and Other Optional Schools in DISD," Up-Date: Network Newsletter, March 8, 1977, p. 2.
     5 "Vanguards and Academies Offer Options to Pre-Secondary Schools," Report Card: A Supplement to Report, April, 1977.
     6 "Questions and Answers ...," p. 3.
     7 "Vanguards and Academies ...".
     8 "Transportation Institute," Dallas Independent School District.
     9 "Arts Magnet High School," Dallas Independent School District.
     10 "High School for the Health Professions," Dallas Independent School District.
     11 "Business and Management Center," Dallas Independent School District.
     12 John Brandstetter and Charles R. Foster, "'Quality Integrated Education' in Houston's Magnet Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, LVII, 8 (April, 1976), pp. 5034.
     13 James M. Banovetz, "Houston," World Book Year Book (1977).
     14 Brandstetter and Foster, p. 502.
     15 Eardley, pp. 145.
     16 Banovetz, "Dallas - Fort Worth."
     17 Banovetz, "Houston."
     18 Daniel U. Levine and Connie C. Moore, "Magnet Schools in a Big-City Desegregation Plan," Phi Delta Kappan, LVII, 8 (April, 1976), p. 508.
     19 Eardley, pp. 167.
     20 Eric Miller, "Resentment Reported: Magnet Recruiting Rift Probed," Dallas Times Herald, March 15, 1977.
     21 Eardley, p. 16.
     22 Levine and Moore, p. 507.
     23 Levine and Moore, pp. 5078.
     24 Eric Miller, "Needs Cited for DISD's 4 'Magnets'," Dallas Times Herald, March 21, 1977.
     25 Brandstetter and Foster, p. 506.
     26 Eardley, pp. 145.
     27 Eric Miller, "Magnets Attract Skyline Success," Dallas Times Herald, Aug. 30, 1976.
     28 "Questions and Answers ...," p. 3.
     29 Miller, "Magnets Attract ...".
     30 Eric Miller, "Student May Flunk to Stay at Holmes," Dallas Times Herald, March 15, 1977.
     31 Levine and Moore, p. 508.
     32 Eardley, p. 17.
     33 Eardley, p. 16.


"Arts Magnet High School," Dallas Independent School District.
Banovetz, James M. "Dallas – Fort Worth," World Book Year Book, 1977. Chicago: Field Enterprises, 1977.
_____. "Houston," World Book Year Book, 1977. Chicago: Field Enterprises, 1977.
Brandstetter, John and Charles R. Foster. "'Quality Integrated Education' in Houston's Magnet Schools," Phi Delta Kappan, LVII, 8 (April, 1976), 502–6.
"Business and Management Center," Dallas Independent School District.
Eardley, Linda. "Cincinnati's Magnet Schools," Integrated Education, XIV, 5 (Sept. – Oct., 1976), 14–7.
"High School for the Health Professions," Dallas Independent School District.
Levine, Daniel U. and Connie C. Moore. "Magnet Schools in a Big-City Desegregation Plan," Phi Delta Kappan, LVII, 8 (April, 1976), 507–9.
"Limited Student Stations Still Available at Some Magnet High Schools . . . Hurry!" Up-Date: Network Newsletter, Feb. 7 & 14, 1977, 4.
Miller, Eric. "Magnets Attract Skyline Success," Dallas Times Herald, Aug. 30, 1976.
–––––. "Needs Cited for DISD's 4 'Magnets'," Dallas Times Herald, March 21, 1977.
–––––. "Resentment Reported: Magnet Recruiting Rift Probed," Dallas Times Herald, March 15, 1977.
–––––. "Student May Flunk to Stay at Holmes," Dallas Times Herald, March 15, 1977.
"Questions and Answers About the Magnets and Other Optional Schools in DISD," Up-Date: Network Newsletter, March 8, 1977, 2–3.
"Transportation Institute," Dallas Independent School District.
"Vanguards and Academies Offer Options to Pre-Secondary Schools," Report Card: A Supplement to Report, April, 1977.

Special acknowledgement to Muriel K. Brahinsky, M.D., curriculum writer and instructor of anatomy and physiology at the Dallas High School for the Health Professions, for her help in supplying information and for her general encouragement. Thanks, Mom!