A Historical Perspective of Montclair's Magnet School System
The “choice” system in the Montclair Public Schools was implemented originally as a voluntary desegregation plan in 1977. Beginning with only two magnet programs, the plan has grown continually and now includes all seven elementary schools and three middle schools. The term “neighborhood school” no longer exists in Montclair; the entire township is the neighborhood for every school.
Implementing the magnet program was no easy task. Following the approval of the magnet schools concept by the Board of Education and State Commissioner of Education, a year was spent developing, designing, marketing and selling the plan.
A call went out for volunteers to serve on a citizens’ advisory task force established to make recommendations about the future magnet programs. More than 100 people responded. Magnet schools in other districts were researched and visited by administrators, teachers and community members. Meetings to describe the magnets were held with organizations such as the PTA, Board of Realtors, local agencies and church groups. Input from parents was sought on desired courses, course content, program and structure.
In September of 1977, the district’s first magnet schools opened: a gifted and talented program to draw white students to a school with a predominance of students of color. A fundamental back to basics program also opened to draw students of color to a predominately white school.
Montclair’s magnet system has come a long way in the past 36 years. What started as a desegregation plan has turned into a dynamic and intricate process. When parents register their children for elementary school at the district’s central office, they must list their ranking of schools.
In February 2010, a new student enrollment/assignment-by-zone policy was approved by the Board of Education. Under the plan, the township was divided into three zones, labeled Zone A, Zone B and Zone C. (These zones were conceived by the Task Force for public school enrollment purposes only, and are not intended to replace existing township or ward delineations.) Students are now assigned to zones based on census data, including household income and Title 1 status (eligibility for Free or Reduced Lunch). Students from all three zones are represented in each school.
As this policy continues in its third full year of implementation, students enrolling in kindergarten are initially given priority if they are siblings, have specific programmatic needs such as ELL (English Language Learners) or require specific services under special education.
After those priorities, a computerized system randomly assigns students with a number, according to zones, with 1st – 6th ranking of parental preference of elementary schools, and 1st-3rd ranking of parental preference for middle schools. Students are assigned to schools from this database, based on school enrollment/spaces/slots.
From this database, a wait list system is utilized and places students in their higher-ranked preference of schools, according to zone balance, as space becomes available.
The magnet schools have created a high quality learning environment in which students of diverse backgrounds feel comfortable and are able to learn. Teachers, students and parents are generally happy with the curriculum and instruction.
The magnet plan has a positive impact on the community by creating alternatives within the public school system and adding excitement to the schools. Parents like the idea of having a voice in the school selection process for their child. It provides them with the opportunity to become more involved in their child’s learning.
For example, each year an evening orientation is scheduled; principals and parents from each building are on hand to make presentations and answer questions. An open house week gives parents a firsthand look at each school’s daily operation. During registration week, central office staff is available to guide parents who are still unsure of their rankings. Involvement in the school continues after enrollment. Parents are more aware of what their child is doing in school and how the program is meeting expectations and their child’s needs.
While each school has a different magnet theme, all schools in the district implement the same core curriculum. Each school delivers the same instructional program which is aligned with the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Mathematics, and with the New Jersey Core Curriculum Content Standards for all other academic areas as required by state law.
The magnet schools bring people from diverse backgrounds together to work collaboratively toward the common goal of high expectations and academic excellence in an integrated environment. In Montclair, children are our future, diversity is our strength.