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District Profile

Choice Encounters

Duval County (Fla.) Public Schools

Katrina Rivera doesn't mind the nearly three-hour, round trip bus ride from her home to Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology.

"I chose this magnet school because I'm trying to become an actress and if I don't make it--it's not really a guaranteed career--I still want to be in TV," says Rivera, who is entering her junior year in the Florida school's TV production and communication magnet program. "I'm learning how to work with cameras, work with a sound board, cut and edit tape, speak in front of the camera and [use] all the [industry's] language."

Rivera is one of 20,000 students attending nearly 30 magnet programs in over 60 schools throughout Duval County Public Schools in Jacksonville. The demand for such programs is so great that thousands of students are placed on long waiting lists each year to attend schools that may be more than an hour away from home. The main attraction is that they offer students a head start in a chosen career and the chance to discover and develop innate skills and talents.

The magnet programs began drawing attention in 1991, when a federal court ruled the district could eliminate forced busing. In its place, the district offered voluntary desegregation, where students would be encouraged to attend 70 magnet programs, representing 25 themes, mostly at schools outside of their neighborhood, says Sally Hague, general director of school choice/pupil assignment operations.

Since then, Duval has received almost $26 million in federal magnet grants. The latest $9 million grant--Inspirations: Duval County's Next Generation of Magnet Schools--is being used to significantly revise or introduce seven programs in its downtown schools, such as a new military sciences and aviation program, elementary and middle school international baccalaureate programs and the district's first K-8 Spanish Immersion/Montessori school.

Mulling the Options

It's not easy deciding what you want to be when you grow up. But information is power. Every January, students in Duval County are mailed an application and asked to choose up to three different magnet programs by the end of February. Families learn about programs through parent meetings and open houses and from brochures, the district's detail-packed magnet catalog or its Web site. Then in April, students are either selected via a lottery or end up on waiting lists.

Open house participants get priority in the lottery, says program director Sally Hague. The district discourages blind choices because they often result in parental disappointment or even shock over the school's demographics, location, or, more specifically, the long bus ride.

Earning Power

Teacher Charlie Rutledge has many success stories to tell about graduates from Frank H. Peterson Academies of Technology, where students learn to cook up careers in culinary arts, communications, aviation, automotive, cosmetology or child care. Among the most common are about those who've earned a career license or certification in a specialized field, which boosts their earning potential for when they hit the job-search pavement.

That goes for both the college-bound and not. "[Some students] have to work somewhere making minimum wage because they have no license or certification," says Rutledge, instructional support manager and magnet lead teacher at the school. "Our kids will [make] $12-$14 an hour while going to college."

Golden Rules

Why are Duval's magnet schools so popular? They follow three essential guidelines that make a successful program, says Steve Peha, president of Teaching That Makes Sense, an educational consulting firm in Chapel Hill, N.C.

The district makes a long-term commitment toward developing each program. He says it takes three years to work out the kinks, five years to know what you're doing and 10 years to make it really work.

Administrators learn how to manage the natural tension that may erupt between magnet and non-magnet teachers. Everyone works as a team--not at each other's expense.

Each school supports leaders or a cadre of teachers who are truly expert in their field. Besides a solid program, "You really need magnet people," he says.

Budget Busters

Despite their quality reputation, magnet schools sometimes have a down side: They come with big expenses and small budgets.

As principal of LaVilla School of the Arts, Connie Skinner says managing the budget is her biggest challenge.

The middle school supports 1,100 students and offers nine art programs: Band, orchestra, piano, guitar, vocal music, dance, theater/drama, visual arts and creative writing. The first three programs alone require 7.5 teachers--not to mention the cost of big-ticket items like practice pianos and a baby grand for performances. Even the cost of sheet music adds up, she says.

Booster clubs collectively raise hundreds of thousands of dollars each year for ancillary expenses.

But Skinner says magnet programs are well worth the budgeting effort. "The challenges are so outweighed by the incredible joy of watching these children perform," she says.

District Stats

Duval County Public Schools

Number of Schools: 19 high, 27 middle, 105 elementary, 5 alternative centers and 3 exceptional student centers

Number of teachers: More than 7,500

Number of students: Approximately 127,500

Ethnicity: 46% white, 43% black, 5% Hispanic, 3% Asian, 3% other

Per-pupil expenditure: $5,672 Dropout rate (2003-2004): 5%

County population: Approximately 800,000

Superintendent: Nancy Snyder, since May 2005

Carol Patton is a contributing editor.