Tri-Cities Voice Newspaper - What's Happening - Fremont, Union City, Newark California

January 3, 2006 > Magnet schools

Magnet schools

by Natalia Smothers and Vidya Pradhan

Martin Kludjian Jr. started playing clarinet in 4th grade and first joined a marching band in 6th grade at a Dublin school. He just loved it. The band practice became the most fun part of his studies. He didn't even try to improve his 'C's and occasional 'D's in some academic disciplines.

After his family moved to Fremont in the Irvington High attendance area, he was delighted to learn that the high school had an excellent music program. He immediately applied for the band and choir classes before entering his freshman year at the school.

Since then, he has been looking forward to going to school because his schedule included music classes in every single school day.

Martin's progress has skyrocketed. Now, in his junior year, he is playing clarinet in school's Wind Ensemble, working toward the class credit from Ohlone College. Here, at Irvington High, he found his new passion - singing. He has advanced to the Chamber Chorale class, which also counts for Ohlone College credit and combines 26 best voices in the school, from jazz to opera style singing.

"I just can't express enough appreciation for my amazing music teacher, Miss Bell," said Martin. "There are over 20 students in the class, but she is so personal that I feel as if I have a private lesson. I am learning so much!"

With his success, Martin seriously considers a vocal career. On the recommendation of Jennifer Bell, he is exploring possibilities of entering Baldwin-Wallace College in Ohio, which has one of the finest music conservatories in the United States.

Last year, Martin auditioned for the school's spring musical "Kiss Me, Kate" even though he had never done any acting. To his surprise, he got a role and enjoyed playing on the stage so much that he started thinking of a career in musical theatre as a second choice. Linda Jackson-Whitmore, director of the Irvington Conservatory Theatre and drama teacher at the school, has invited Martin to the advanced drama class, bypassing the introductory-level classes.

"I spend about nine hours at school every day, not counting rehearsal nights and some extra practices," said Martin. "I am using every spare minute in the tight schedule to do my homework. This actually helped me learn time management and improve my overall grades. Now I have only 'A's and 'B's. All 'C's and 'D's are long gone."

Martin's experience, like that of many other participants of the Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program at Irvington High School, shows the power of immersion into the arts or a field of strong interest. Every day, students have an incentive to come to school - learning art-related skill sets, including creative problem solving, self-discipline, reflection, self-correction and teamwork. Before they know it, they start using these skills for their academic classes and improve their math and English scores.

The Center for the Creative Arts (CCA):

The music, drama, dance, visual arts and digital technology classes are open to all students at Irvington High as an elective choice. In addition, about one out of five students are accepted into the Center for the Creative Arts (CCA) based on their application and an essay submitted in February since CCA's inception in 1999. Last year, out of 340 CCA students, 84 transferred to Irvington's magnet program from other schools in the district.

Irvington teachers refer to CCA as the academic arm of the magnet program because the arts become the focal point of the CCA student's life, integrated with core academic classes. For freshmen and sophomores in the CCA program, English, science, world history and several other classes are taught with examples from the art. For CCA juniors and seniors, the emphasis changes from nurturing of academic achievement and artistic exploration to choosing and mastering a particular artistic discipline. The goal is for students to learn with a purpose and see the connection of ideas. They set goals and begin planning for their future. To achieve this result, Irvington has created the largest, most diverse art department in the Fremont Unified School District.

Since the magnet program started, the visual art program has grown considerably and hired a new sculpture teacher. The number of students who take a college-level advanced placement test in visual arts has grown from four to 25. Last year six Irvington graduates were accepted into UCLA's prestigious Visual and Performing Arts Program, one of the best in the country.

Among current seniors, inspired by their example, is Tzu-ti ("Debbie") Huang. In addition to advanced art classes, she is doing an independent study, preparing a portfolio of her paintings for UCLA evaluation. She has already won a number of contests offered by different organizations. Every Saturday, she also teaches kids and adults at the Chinese Art Education Center in Fremont.

"I see an enormous increase in the level of work of our students," said Bob Moran, visual art teacher and CCA coordinator. "Irvington High has always had a strong arts curriculum, but with the introduction of the magnet program, the students have just flourished. They are motivated to rise to the level of the advanced classes which are often taught by college instructors or independent artists and have college credit. That was not possible before implementation of the magnet program."

Since being named a magnet in 1999, Irvington has doubled the size of its music department and is the only high school in the district with a full time choir and music teacher. The Irvington Jazz Band was recently awarded second place out of 10 other contenders at the Lodi Band Review. The dance department has doubled in size, as well.

At Irvington H.S., almost every week, students attend field trips to art-related places or performances on the school campus. In October, some CCA classes visited Angel Island in San Francisco Bay to learn about American history through poetry writings of immigrants on the walls of the former immigration center. Another class visited the Zeum, an interactive art museum, in San Francisco. The third trip was to a Shakespeare production at California Shakespeare Theater (Cal Shakes) in the Oakland Hills.

Last year, the school's Irvington Conservatory Theatre, warmly called by everybody Valhalla, hosted performances of the Oakland Ballet and a Grammy Award-winning rock-n-roll star followed by question-and-answer sessions. Irvington students had a unique opportunity to ask questions and hear advice from the professional artists.

The school's students are also frequent visitors at Ohlone College theatre productions. Irvington's drama department puts on three major shows each year and eight smaller productions including dance performances and talent shows. Recently, 125 students tried out for 42 spots for the Winter show. Often kids from local schools and colleges across the district participate in these productions.

"The Visual and Performing Arts Magnet Program at our school is so much more than an after-school recreational activity," said Evan Boomer, senior at Irvington High and member of CCA. "I always had an interest in acting. I went to the Rainbow Theatre studio in Milpitas starting from 8 years old. It was a nice introduction, but it was here, at Irvington, where I got the feeling that musical theatre is the career I want to pursue. Being in drama classes almost every day and playing roles in award-winning musical productions gave me the confidence that I can do this kind of job."

In his sophomore year, Evan played Daniel in the school's musical "Once on This Island," which won The Best Musical award among 28 high school productions in Northern California from the American Musical Theatre Association. It was quite a challenge to portray a rich guy who had an automobile accident. A poor girl saves Daniel's life. He falls in love with her but has to make a painful choice between his family and the new found love. The family prevails, and the girl dies.

"To learn the typical manners of a rich person was the easiest part of the role," said Evan. "It took much more work to find the characterization of Daniel. Our drama teacher, Mrs. Jackson-Whitmore, helped me tremendously. She encouraged me to try thinking the thoughts which go through Daniel's mind at each moment. That was an inspiring experience!"

Last summer, Evan landed his first paying role at a professional theatre. He played the tree which slapped Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz production of the American Musical Theatre in San Jose.

Linda Jackson-Whitmore, often called "Mrs. J," has taught drama at Irvington High for nearly 30 years. She always lights up remembering about her former students who now perform on the Broadway and other theatres, study acting in college or continue their passion for the theatre as a hobby. She is especially proud of her student who became a head designer for the light shows at Disney, Tokyo.

"Since the magnet program started at our school, we have a lot more stability in our arts education," said Jackson-Whitmore. "Kids know what they can expect and work toward their goals."

For several years, Mrs. J is inviting a professor from Trinity Guild University in London, UK to conduct the Honor Exam in her advanced performing arts class, which is so important for many students seriously considering a theatre-related career.

A lot of the ideas and connections for the magnet program at Irvington High have come from the school's cooperation with the Julia Morgan Center for the Arts in Berkeley. The center not only brings working artists and groups to the school campus but also has provided two-week intense training for over 20 teachers of Irvington High. At the center, they learned the techniques and "secrets" of integrating the arts into everyday experience in a way that their students would be open to experiencing the art and would be able to reflect on it.

Program support:

The initial fee for the teacher training, expansion and remodeling of the school's theatre and other magnet program developments at Irvington High came from the state's Specialized School Program Grant in 1999. The Fremont Unified School District (FUSD) has been supporting the program with some staffing allocation since then.

"We are grateful we had the chance to secure a $400,000 grant in 1999, when the economy in California was booming," said Pete Murchison, principal of Irvington High School. "We appreciate the help of the district allowing our teachers involved in the magnet program to spend some of their paid time on coordination of the arts activities. Unfortunately the initial funds have been depleted, and now we have to scramble for help paying for basic art supplies like crayons and pencils. We had some luck with the Candle Lighters who made a commitment to fund the Irvington Art department if they made enough money from Haunted House ticket sales, but a lot more help is still needed."

Traditionally magnet schools emerge by the initiative of the schools themselves with the help of a state grant and a degree of district involvement. The magnet school movement in the United States started in the fall of 1968. McCarver Elementary in Tacoma, Washington, was the first in the nation to invite students from anywhere in the city to enroll, breaking the link between school assignments and residential location. The main objective was desegregation the "natural" way instead of through court orders. The "magnets" attracted white students into predominantly black schools by offering special education with a focus on a particular aspect of the curriculum, such as performing arts, Montessori, advanced math or science and technology.

As of today, the directory published by the Magnet Schools Association of America lists more than 3,000 magnet or theme-based schools as members although it does not encompass all magnet schools. For example, Irvington and Kennedy high schools are not listed.

Kennedy High School:

Kennedy is a multimedia technology magnet high school where students are given opportunities to use technology in their core curricular areas. "We offer five strands: computer studies, business applications, electronic arts, audio video production, and mass communications. In addition to their core academic subjects, students choose from a variety of courses in these strand areas," says Principal Tony Kuns. "We have a concentration of technology offerings and the students typically would end up taking many more technology subjects that they would in a traditional school."

In fact students take 10 units of computer operations in their freshmen year as opposed to the five that the district requires. Additionally, the students take a strand class in their sophomore and their junior year and do a project in their senior year. "The idea behind the magnet school was that not only would all the students get a sound education in all their curriculum areas but that every student would also be well-versed in technology use," says Dan Bega, one of the architects of the magnet program at Kennedy High.

In 1998, the tech boom was in full swing. Kennedy High, which was suffering from poor enrollment at the time, decided to develop a program to offer courses with special emphasis on technology. This would have the dual benefit of attracting more students to the school and prepare the students for careers in the exciting field of high tech.

In the freshman year all students go through the basics of all the five strands that are offered by the school. After that the student has a choice to be immersed in a particular area of interest or just broadly explore all the subjects offered. The eight-period school day that the school has instead of the typical six periods in a traditional high school means that the student has the opportunity to take two extra classes.

Unlike some magnet schools offering performing arts programs which require students to audition prior to acceptance, Kennedy High is very inclusive and any student entering high school in Fremont has the opportunity to participate in the program.

Enrollment has stabilized now at Kennedy High and the school scores have gone up steadily. Last year, the school improved its API by 26 points. While the growth and improvement is not entirely attributable to the magnet program, it has certainly contributed.

Newark Memorial High School's Media Communications Academy:

Loren Pinto of Newark Memorial High School said that although there is only one high school in the district, a program called "The Media Communications Academy" is "a school within a school." Part of the state funded California Partnership Academy for secondary initiatives, this "small learning community" is in its 5th or 6th year, open to sophomores through senior year students designed for at least 50 percent participation by students who are "at risk" with poor grades, attendance and "need a reason to come to school."

The academy focuses on video and audio communications to develop a career path. Course work is related to the program so English, Math and other classes relate to media and communications. The program has approximately 120 students. A typical class of sophomores is approximately 50 students which reduces to about 30 in the ensuing years of study. The class stays together in their course work and participates in practical applications with local businesses.

Described as "very successful," dedicated teachers in the academy coordinate subjects in required course materials with the overall focus of the program. All students in last year's senior class graduated. Many graduates move on to further studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in San Francisco, Brooks College and Ohlone College among other institutions of higher learning. Students interested in joining the academy are interviewed and must receive parental permission.

Future Programs:

In Union City, New Haven Unified School District has recently created a planning team of 29 students, parents, teachers, administrators and other community members to begin some preliminary discussions about magnet schools. Milpitas and Hayward districts have not explored similar possibilities at this time. The recent school budget crisis in California has placed a financial strain on schools with special programs. Some of them simply would not be able to continue without the local help.

"In this difficult time, our only hope is support from the district and local community," said Murchison. "We have proved that our magnet program changes our kids' lives and improves overall numbers. Eighty percent of the students who participate in the Center for the Creative Arts at our school graduate in their senior year compare to the average level of 60 percent graduation in the Fremont Unified School District."

"Magnet schools are a terrific opportunity for those students who take advantage of them," said Doug Gephart, superintendent of FUSD. "I am sure magnet schools like Irvington High will remain an important feature of the American education for many years to come."

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