Next week, the first class of students who have attended kindergarten through fifth grade at Burlington’s two magnet schools will graduate.
The Burlington school district launched the magnet schools, one organized around arts and the other around sustainability, in 2009 when the North End’s two elementary schools were struggling with enrollment and a lack of socioeconomic diversity.
The magnet arrangement, which involved renaming the schools, and offering a specialized focus with enhanced academics in that area, designed to draw students from all around the district, has been adopted in other states but was new to Vermont. The Sustainability Academy, formerly Lawrence Barnes Elementary School, was the first of its kind in the nation.
Vermont’s Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe lauded the schools as she watched the students, sporting painted paper hats and banners, march by on their way to the Flynn Center for a celebration.
“This is an example of how if you bring a community together and you listen to what they have to say and what they care about, and are willing to take a couple risks around things that you think are really important, you can really create something special for your kids,” Holcombe said.
Holcombe said that under the education reform bill H.361, which Gov. Peter Shumlin signed into law earlier this week, she believes that communities in other parts of the state will have more flexibility to pursue initiatives similar to magnet schools.
“I think communities that want to embrace the opportunities will be able to do some incredible things for their kids,” Holcombe said.
Victor Prussack, the magnet school coordinator for the Burlington district, says that six years in, numbers show that the magnet schools at H.O. Wheeler and Lawrence Barnes Elementary Schools are meeting their goals.
Before the schools converted, close to 100 percent of the student body at both schools qualified for free lunch, Prussack said. As of last year, less than two-thirds of the students at both schools qualified, he said — a sign of greater socioeconomic diversity.
Meanwhile, the North End elementary schools went from atrophying enrollment a decade ago to “bursting at the seams,” Prussack said.
Prussack, like Holcombe, thinks that the new education laws will help schools adapt to changing standards. Other regions in the state could benefit from adopting systems similar to magnet schools, he said, but he added a caveat.
“Each community, each group of parent teachers kids, each one is different, so I don’t believe you can go in and say, give me the recipe and I’ll replicate it,” Prussack said.
Charlie and Sara Giannoni came out for the schools’ celebrations as neighbors of the two schools. They lived in the neighborhood before Barnes and Wheeler became magnet schools, and they say that the change has been palpable.
“The whole mood of the North End has changed,” Charlie said. “Everyone is pitching in in a way that was not there before the magnet schools.”
Some community members are less effusive. Serena Jackson, a Burlington resident, came to the event to support her nephews who are at the Integrated Arts Academy — a school her children had attended before it became a magnet school.
Jackson said that in her view the schools have been somewhat successful in their mission to improve socioeconomic diversity in the area, but she said that there is still a ways to go.
“It’s still growing,” Jackson said. “It’s still in the infancy stage, but it’s growing.”
Tom Hudspeth, a recently retired professor of environmental studies and natural resources at the University of Vermont, has worked with the Sustainability Academy through his university students who have partnered with the school over the years.
Hudspeth said that education at the two schools goes well beyond normal classroom hours.
“They’re not just teaching to the kids during the day,” Hudspeth said. “It’s used at night, it’s used by the community for other purposes as well.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly named the school that became The Sustainablity Academy.