Why Magnets Matter

18 03 2009

When it occurs at all, by far the most common type of gifted program is separating classes based on ability (whether in pull out classes, accelerated classes, AP classes, radical acceleration, or what have you). These, when done properly, can often very successfully meet even highly gifted children’s educational needs. Well, I hate to shoot down something that does such a good job of that, but so what?

Cultures form in very, very small units. It’s pretty well known that two offices in the same company, doing essentially the same thing, can have very different mentalities and methods outlasting any individual employee. Someone’s experience in one, even with the same work, can be very different from their experience in another.

Well, this holds true in schools too. A school very much has a culture of its own. This affects policy, which is important, but it runs deeper than policy. It affects how teachers and students interact, and how students act. It affects how students perceive each others’ actions, and how they then respond. It affects attitudes and outlooks.

This can extend to the presence or lack of things like bullying, but I’m not talking about that at all. What I’m talking about is much, much deeper than that. It’s how the social unit of the school functions. The tiny, completely unconscious things that make a world of difference. The difference between a school that accepts, and a school that doesn’t reject, in many ways.

Well, extend that to gifted kids. A school made up mostly of fairly average students will have a very different culture from a school that’s very heavy in gifted kids. And I can say this from experience: a collection of gifted kids has a very different feel than a random sampling across the ability spectrum. Giftedness isn’t just intelligence, after all.

Some public schools don’t reject gifted kids. But there’s a difference between lack of rejection (and honestly, even acceptance) and belonging. Even in very well off, far above average schools, gifted kids often do not have that sense of fitting in because they don’t fit in. A magnet school draws gifted kids together, so that you have that concentration of gifted kids.

As I hope most people realize, that sense of fitting in is extremely powerful, especially for kids who aren’t used to it. It can make an enormous difference in a kid’s happiness just to feel like she is with people who really understand.

And it’s not just that. The culture I mentioned earlier is important too. It’s a culture that allows gifted kids to flourish because they can feel free to be gifted kids (strange, bizarre, and awesome creatures that they are). Gifted kids, when given the freedom to act like this, are downright strange. And that’s when they’re happiest, in many cases. But they can’t act that way if no one else does, because even if it wouldn’t actually garner negative attention, doing something that others around you do is hard because you always think it will.

And that too appears at a magnet school because, in many cases (even for very highly gifted kids), you aren’t that much weirder than anyone else, because everyone’s weird. And that matters enormously.

“Challenge” and “rigor” are not the most important things for a gifted kid’s education, although they are important. If the kid’s happy, she will learn a lot on her own, too. Ordinary schools rarely foster happiness for gifted children, though, even with pullout programs. Magnets are expensive, a pain to run, and an organisational nightmare. But they are very, very worth it.