One of the proposals for the South Dallas area is to make one or two of the high schools into a Police Academy and a Nursing Academy. The word "Academy" makes this sound like a very prestigious opportunity...just like the word "magnet school."
Magnet programs were set up in the late '60's and early 70's because of White Flight. As White people scattered to the suburbs to avoid integration, schools attempted forming specialized programs that would make White parents want to transport their kids back into the city to attend the higher quality magnet schools. This was never accomplished. Magnet schools, along with all urban public schools, are more segregated now than in the 70's (Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation, 2005).
Despite the eloquent ring and the good intentions of "magnets" and "academies," I have always been bothered by the actual concept of these types of schools. Two things bother me. 1) Kids are asked to decide on a career before they have any experience with life. 2) Academy and magnet schools are not necessarily higher level schools, but often glorified trade schools.
In order to get into an "academy" or a "magnet," students receive applications in the 8th grade. At that point, they fill out their application and choose what specialty school they would like to attend. There are several options--performing arts, humanities and communication, law, travel and tourism, etc. At 13 years old they are asked to choose their career! Whatever they choose is what they will focus on for the next four years. Those courses will be their electives. They do not have the options to choose a variety of electives to figure out if they have other interests.
Jay Mathews addresses the negative aspects of magnet schools in his Washington Post article, "In College Admissions, Magnets Are Negative" (November 12, 2001, A1). He points out that magnet programs often result in lower GPA's, less challenging courses, and less of a focus on academics.
So why the focus on magnet and academy schools? The reasoning I have heard for the Police and Nursing Academies are so that more kids in South Dallas will graduate from high school. To me, however, these glorified trade schools are only lowering the expectations for our South Dallas (and other urban area) students. Because we expect that they won't achieve more, we are lowering the expectations and providing more trade schools in hopes that they will have at least minimal skills. That, to me, is unacceptable.
How about instead of lowering the expecations and providing lower-academic trade schools, we provide schools that have interesting curriculum and quality teachers that challenge kids? How about we get them the help that they need to get them up to grade level in their reading, writing, and math skills? How about instead of lowering our expectations for the kids, we raise the expectations for our schools?
I'm an educator. I've seen education done in ways that could engage any child. Unfortunately, interesting education is not the norm in our lower-income schools. Instead, there is a huge focus on testing and passing those tests. There are baseline tests, practice tests, and actual tests year-round. Because the schools are so busy focusing on tests, they don't have time to focus on learning. And then we wonder why kids disengage.
The kids in South Dallas are just as intelligent as kids in the suburbs. Unfortunately for them, they are at the mercy of adults who make the decisions--adults who feel like low-level, low-income students need lower-level skill opportunities to help them get through. I disagree. I think we need to raise the level of expectations for the students, for the teachers, and for the administrators. We need to offer the students high quality, interesting learning opportunities.
Let's not put extra money into forming more academies and magnets. How about, instead, we invest our extra money in providing kids with opportunities, giving them a variety of experiences, and preparing them academically so that if they change their mind they have the option and the skills to do something different?