An elementary school’s transformation to Gehring Academy of Science and Technology started with a lengthy shopping list.
Over the summer, administrators at the Silverado Ranch-area school purchased Chromebooks for each student, laboratory furniture, project-based learning curricula, a portable planetarium and robotics and engineering equipment. They’re still acquiring some furniture and materials, but the basics were in place when Gehring debuted as one of the Clark County School District’s new magnet schools this fall.
Three months into the academic year, students and staff at the newly branded Gehring Academy are settling into a revamped environment that promotes hands-on learning. Fifth-graders, for instance, recently used the biomedical lab to learn how disease spreads in society.
“It brings the skills that they’re learning to real-world experience,” said Lis Dziminski, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) strategist at Gehring. “It helps them see everything they’re learning — all the standards they’re working through — and how it’s applicable to situations they’ll encounter now and throughout their life.”
Now, the magnet school that’s serving roughly 550 students hopes to expand. Gehring Academy is accepting applications for the 2019-2020 school year, when it hopes to admit 640 students.
The application deadline — Jan. 8 — is nearly two months away. But the district’s push to raise awareness about magnet schools, sometimes referred to as the “choice” within traditional public schools, began early this fall.
On a Saturday morning in early November, families streamed in and out of Thurman White Academy of the Performing Arts, where booths advertising various magnet schools lined the gymnasium.
At the Cashman Middle School booth, seventh-grader Alejandro Narias had perfected his sales pitch for prospective fellow students and their parents.
“What makes our school so special is that our school focuses on making students well-rounded citizens,” said Narias, who is interested in biomedical robotics. “I wanted to find somewhere that really suited what I wanted to be.”
This “Mega Magnet Day” was all about educating students, like Narias, who may desire a school setting more catered to their interests. The school district boasts 40 magnet schools — including high schools designated as career and technical academies (CTA) — as well as five select schools. The latter cohort refers to schools that have strong career and technical education programs without the admission criteria unique to magnet schools.
Entry into elementary and middle magnet schools is based on student interest coupled with a lottery system, said Rachel Reid, a coordinator in the district’s magnet and CTA department. Students can apply to as many as three magnet schools, and if there are more applications than seats available, a computerized lottery program selects students. Lottery results are announced in February.
High schools designated as magnets or career and technical academies have admission criteria, which includes a student’s academic behavior and attendance, Reid said. Again, if qualified applicants outnumber available seats, a computerized lottery selects students.
“As a parent, you can choose what is a priority for your child,” Trustee Lola Brooks said of the idea behind magnet schools. “If you’re kid is very interested in STEM, if you’re kid is very interested in the arts, you can find something that works for them.”
The nation’s fifth-largest school district — often criticized for lackluster student performance — considers its magnet portfolio a bright spot and example of what’s possible. Clark County received 26 merit awards from Magnet Schools of America in February and then two national awards from the same organization in May. East Career and Technical Academy and McCaw STEAM Academy received the national awards, placing them among an elite group of schools across the country.
Not surprisingly, interest in magnet schools tends to be high. The district received 41,140 applications — a figure that includes students applying to multiple magnet programs — for the 2018-2019 school year. That was a 10 percent increase over the prior application period.
The magnet lottery for the 2018-2019 school year included 2,127 open seats at the elementary school level, 3,685 at middle school and 7,948 at high school for a total of 13,760 seats.
Ahead of this academic year, 1,101 students in elementary school, 1,758 students in middle school and 1,649 students in high school were not offered their first choice of magnet schools after the initial lottery.
District officials make every effort to place interested students in magnet programs, even if they’re not selected during the initial lottery. Reid said it’s “highly possible” those students will be offered a position before the school year starts when seats open because of families moving or students declining their seats.
“Over the past few years, we’ve increased the number of seats available,” Reid said. “We’ve opened additional magnet schools.”
Lied Stem Academy and O’Callahan i3 Learn Academy joined Gehring Academy as the new magnet schools this year. A $15 million federal grant over a five-year period is helping cover the costs associated with turning those campuses into magnet schools, Reid said.
District officials are careful not to describe the increased magnet marketing efforts as way to curb the exodus of students leaving for charter schools. But the reality is this: If the district can prevent students from leaving — and taking their state per-pupil funding with them — that bodes well for them financially.
Last year, the district blamed $4 million of its deficit on revenue reductions for each Clark County student who left the district to attend a charter school. Charter enrollment has been on the rise in Nevada, with more than 46,000 students attending a state-sponsored, district-sponsored or Achievement School District charter school.
“I don’t know if we think about it as competing,” Gehring Principal Amy Yacobovsky said. “Obviously we recruit so we are looking to increase our student population and so we do get students from charter schools and private schools who are interested in something a little more intense.”
Just under 12 percent of the applications Gehring Academy has received for the 2019-2020 academic year are from students who currently attend a charter or private school, officials said.
Recruitment efforts also have sought to diversify the student population, especially in the magnet and CTA high schools, where African-American students tend to be underrepresented. The school district is partnering with the Clark County Black Caucus to host two events — a magnet school workshop in late November and a magnet school fair in December — as a way to spread awareness among African-American students and their families.
“We haven’t been happy with it,” said Yvette Williams, chair of the Clark County Black Caucus, referring to the number of African-American students enrolled in magnet schools. “We have been working on this tirelessly for 10 years.”
Even so, Williams said she is cautiously optimistic change could be on the horizon given the district’s leadership change and re-evaluation of priorities. Superintendent Jesus Jara started in June and has made improving equity a top goal.
“I have seen more movement around this issue that we’ve been, you know, drilling and drilling for a decade now,” she said. “We’ve seen more movement since Superintendent Jara has been here.”
District officials said there are no plans to expand magnet school offerings at the moment. Brooks doesn’t necessarily view that as a negative, though. The trustee said she hopes neighborhood schools can incorporate more magnet characteristics into their environments as well.
“Ultimately, the goal should be to make every school as great as magnets,” she said.