Back to School Already? First Day at State's First Magnet School

Aug 7, 2012

Here’s a sentence you don’t hear much: today is August 7th... the first day of school.

Rochester’s Maple Street Elementary School is reopening this year as the state’s first Magnet School: an experiment in school reform that involves a longer school year and a specialized curriculum.

Under the best of circumstances the first day of school can be hectic for teachers and administrators. But imagine this, before this school year started folks at the Maple Street Magnet School had to hire 60 percent new staff, conduct a lottery to decide which students got to attend the school, and rearrange classrooms to accommodate a 4th grade that hadn’t been there before.

And on top of that, there were only four weeks of summer to change things around and shine up the floors. So when the bells rang on time, Custodian Diane Demers was thrilled.

Demers: The bells are ringing! I can cross that off my list!

For years, the neighborhoods around the Maple Street School had been getting poorer and enrollment was falling. The question became what to do with the school?

The solution, says principal Robin Brown: make it a magnet.

Brown: A magnet school, as the name implies, we want to attract people. So we wanted to offer something that was a little bit different.

Magnet Schools are schools of choice: any parent within the district can send their kids. If it’s over-enrolled they sort that out with a lottery, which happened this year to determine which 97 kids could attend.

The biggest difference at Maple Street is the long school year – an extra twenty days. Reformers usually hit resistance when they try to stretch the calendar, but at Maple Street parents who are open to the idea can choose for themselves.

Samaya Wylder and her first grade twins are on board for the 200 day calendar.

Wylder: It was an issue because of vacation time, but we just tweaked our plans and we’re ready to go. Mommy is ready to go [chuckles].

Magnet schools also tend to have an academic theme – usually something like Math and Science or Leadership. The Maple Street School was going to be French themed, but school leadership wound up settling on something a little more hazy: “community”.

Principal Robin Brown says the concept is a work in progress.

Brown: That’s something that the students will be determining with their teachers. We had to have something in place for when the students came in.

While French isn’t the school’s theme, kids K-4 are still getting three French classes a week, taught by Marty Wintje, a veteran high school teacher and director of the French Program at Middlebury’s Summer Language School.

While day one at the magnet school seems to have gone smoothly, the change has not been without its discontents.

A blog called Save Our Students has popped up, with one of the school board members listed as a contact, raising questions: how much will the extra school days cost? Will students really see benefits without dramatically different curriculum?

And the school board stirred up a controversy during the lottery process by allowing a teacher’s son, who hadn’t been selected at random, to attend the school.

But despite the travails, the Magnet school’s supporters are in it for the long run.

Pastelis: I’m sure there were those critics, those nay-sayers, down in North Carolina, when Wilber and Orville we’re doing their thing. Saying, “Orville, that thing ain’t never gonna fly.” So you know it comes with the territory.

School board member Anthony Pastelis first presented the idea of turning Maple Street into a magnet.

He and other supporters, including the Mayor of Rochester and the superintendent say, we won’t know if the school’s a success until after a few years of testing scores. 

And if nothing else everyone at the school is enthusiastic, even the kids, like 4th grader Ryley Freeman, and even if they’re not sure why.

Evans-Brown: Are you excited today?

Freeman: Yes I am.

Evans-Brown: So it’s a magnet school, do you know what that means?

Freeman: Actually I do not know.

Evans-Brown: But you know it’s different right?

Freeman: Yes because they told me last year when I was in third grade.

Clearly, the kids will take what they get.

And while skeptics ask whether if what students will get just more of the same, it’s doubtful that anyone is going to be worse off for it.

And maybe, these extra summer days at school will make a difference.