Burlington’s magnet schools celebrate inaugural class

Students from Burlington's magnet schools paraded down Church Street Wednesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

Students from Burlington’s magnet schools parade down Church Street on Wednesday. Photo by Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger

BURLINGTON — Some 500 Burlington elementary school students paraded down Church Street on Wednesday, celebrating the end of the sixth year at Vermont’s only magnet elementary schools.

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.

Elizabeth Hewitt

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  • Jay Eshelman

    Wow. Why didn’t we hear more about Magnet Schools during the recent Education Reform debates?

    “Big changes are in the works for Burlington schools. Two existing schools are set to open as magnet schools next fall and that means parents will have to choose where to send their kids.”

    Parents will ‘have to choose where to send their kids”? Really. ‘Please, please don’t throw me in that briar patch.’

    But wait a minute. Are these false choices. One school emphasizes ‘sustainability’ while the other emphasizes movement, art, song, and kinesthetics.

    I mean…’sustainability’? What’s this about ‘Environmental Justice’ and ‘Economic Justice’? Does the school offer a reasonable comparison between solar power and nuclear fusion; or democratic free market capitalism and a Marxist social democracy?

    And kinesthetics? Are we talking about football, boxing and martial arts, or Pilates and Yoga?

    There’s a disconnect here that I can’t quite put my finger on. One the one hand:

    “Moreover, standardized tests administered at elementary schools under the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) show an upward trajectory in reading and math results at both the Sustainability Academy and the IAA.”

    So much for the rhubarb over misguided ‘high stakes’ testing. Apparently, when test scores support one’s point of view they’re great. When test scores are derogatory, they’re a social Armageddon.

    And this:

    “Right now teachers district-wide can structure their classes on the magnet model, but few do due to a lack of funding. Grant money is available exclusively for magnet schools, not for schools that offer several teaching styles.”

    What makes a ‘magnet school’ any different from other schools in a School Choice environment? What is the cost per student at these magnet schools? The VT AOE doesn’t identify them individually in its financial data. Does the funding mechanism meet the Brigham standard?

    At first blush, the Magnet School concept seems to be just the breath of fresh air Vermont’s public school system needs and its curious that the concept hasn’t been discussed in depth before. And School Choice is the key. But the choices should be as diverse as reasonably possible and economically efficient. Otherwise one must ask, are Vermont’s Magnet Schools true School Choice or a progressive transmogrification into what may, in reality, become a dystopian brave new world.

    For now, I’m hopeful that the School Choice Magnet School concept will catch on and bring forth true entrepreneurial education pedagogy at a reasonable cost.

  • Janice Prindle

    This shows the disconnect between our educational bureaucracy and the rolling hills of Vermont.

    “Magnet schools” is just another term for “school choice” which is just a cover for segregation of one kind or another, racial or economic. It lets kids from well-funded families congregate around one pet issue without appearing to be exclusive. I don’t have Mr. Eshelman’s objections to progressive politics, nor his preference for school choice. But we may agree that public education should be about education, not indoctrination of any persuasion — about an exchange of viewpoints, like Town Meeting; a dialogue within a real community that includes the haves and have-nots, that includes people who are different from you, with whom you learn to get along. Exposure to new ideas outside of your own bubble is preparation for the real world. Diversity of backgrounds is the healthy anti-dote to “group think” and the best safeguard of a civilized society where, say, Republicans and Democrats can carry on respectful public debate without polarizing — that’s utopian enough for me!

    Magnet schools/charter schools/school choice is impractical too outside of a city, increasing the travel times and transportation costs. But the worst part of it would be taking schools out of the communities they are grounded in, depriving those communities of their common cause or center.

    Imagining that this is the solution to school costs is delusional; imagining that education benefits from “true entrerpreneurial pedagogy” likewise.

    Pedagogy by definition is not about making, or saving, money, but about how human beings learn. We learn best in emotionally secure environments, in stable relationships; we learn by doing, through dialogue, and through the need to integrate new information/concepts with previous learning. All of that suggests small classrooms, local schools, responsive to a range of students and their families of different backgrounds. Pretty much what we’ve had all along. If it ain’t broke, stop fiddling with it.

    • Tyler Bolles

      Have you been to either of the BTV magnet schools? I assure you they are anything but segregated, racially or economically. And I don’t know how indoctrination comes into the discussion of magnet schools. The only “group think” that happens at these schools is a love for the schools, their teachers/faculty, and their missions. Not to mention an amazing, palpable love felt by the entire staff for the students.

      “If it ain’t broke, stop fiddling with it”? One needn’t look too deeply into the education system to realize how horribly it’s broken. The vitriol towards teachers, the unwillingness of voters to accept necessary increases in the budget (and now penalties if an increase exceeds 2%)…I was close to heckling Secretary Holcombe at this assembly when she lauded Shumlin for his support of schools days after he signed the bill penalizing districts for increasing their budgets. BSD needs an increase of 3-4% next year to keep things as they are (adding nothing–including the kindergarten paras that were stripped last year), and we’re allowed 2%.

      I don’t know enough about the workings of the school system to know whether magnet schools are the answer, especially outside of the city (we are just getting into this crazy world, our child is in K, entering 1st grade), but the concept certainly saved two failing schools in BTV. And they are definitely providing their students all of what you outline in your final paragraph: emotionally secure environments for students (many who might not have any other place in their lives where they feel secure), stable relationships based on trust and respect with their teachers and the staff (the students gave multiple, unprompted standing ovations for their teachers at this event), integration of new information/concepts, and certainly responsiveness to a range of students and their families of different backgrounds. Small classrooms? Well, you can’t have everything…

  • Jamie Carter

    Why is it when the liberals in Burlington institute magnet schools giving parents a choice where to send their children it’s lauded as a success.

    And yet, if a republican dare bring up school choice it’s a terrible idea?

    School choice works. It has for many rural schools through the years, and it has worked in Vermonts largest city… now why can’t we have it statewide?

    • Jay Eshelman

      For the record, Jamie, if you’re referring to me, I’m not a Republican. None the less, your point is well taken.

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