What are Charter and Magnet Schools?

by Laura Roe Stevens

What are Charter and Magnet Schools?

Are you disillusioned by your local public school, but can’t afford private school tuition? You’re not alone. Luckily there are more choices today than just home schooling. Within the public school system, in most cities, you can also find charter and magnet schools. These terms are often thrown around interchangeably, but there are differences between the two—as well as among each other. This story should help you better understand your choices and find alternative public schools near you, as well as provide insight into the application process.


Magnet Schools:


A magnet school is a public school that offers specialized courses or curricula. Some magnet schools draw students from small boundaries, while others open up to larger districts with tougher admittance requirements, like Governor’s Schools. As mentioned, some have competitive requirements for application others are based on a lottery system.


Most magnet schools concentrate on a particular discipline or area of study—such as an emphasis on performing arts, or math and science. Brooke Wirtschafter of Los Angeles, enrolled her six-year-old son Leo into the Brentwood Science Magnet school for first grade this year. He didn’t get in for kindergarten, which is often more competitive for magnet schools. Compared to his previous school where Leo attended Kindergarten, Brooke is thrilled.


“The main difference between this school and the traditional public school he attended last year is that this magnet has a science lab program. They have labs in physics, biology, computer science, and one more, which I can’t remember. The kids do an eight-week rotation in each lab over the course of the school year in each grade. I’ve also heard that the school has a very good music and art program, which is not typical of schools in my local district,” Brooke explained.



This magnet school based its entrance on a lottery system within its district. If you don’t get into the magnet school of choice, you are given “points” which puts your child up higher on the list for the next year—with the idea that your child will get into a magnet school within three years.


Leo’s buddy, Jacob, whom he’s known since birth and went to kindergarten with last year, got into a different magnet school in Los Angeles this year that focuses on technology. It is also a combined charter magnet school called the Open Charter Magnet school. Jacob’s mom, Trina March, says she’s happy with how the year is progressing for her son.


“The school takes a developmental hands-on approach to learning. The mission statement references Piaget. I think it’s charter was based on technology but although there are computers in each classroom, they are used as to enhance learning rather than as the focus (which pleases me),” she says.


Trina found the school while working as an educational therapist and was able to work with a few special education students at Open School.


“I fell in love with the project-oriented teaching and the enthusiasm I saw in the teachers and students. We applied through the point system and did not get in for Kindergarten.  The next year we applied again and got in for first grade,” she explained.


Charter Schools:


According to the organization US Charter Schools (www.uscharterschools.org) Charter schools are “nonsectarian public schools of choice that operate with freedom from many of the regulations that apply to traditional public schools.”


The term “charter” refers to the performance contract “detailing the school’s mission, program, goals, students served, methods of assessment, and ways to measure success.” This contract is made with the school’s sponsor—typically a state or local school board—and the school is given autonomy as long as it meets its charter goals.


Since 1991, forty states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico have signed into law charter school legislation.


Marney Mayo has become somewhat of a charter school expert from her involvement in helping the founders of the International Community School (ICS) in Atlanta, Georgia. She explained the ICS founders wanted to share/lease church space where she was in charge of missions—and her duty was to educate the church community who would decide whether or not to grant the space to the school. Five years later, her two children attend the school whose mission is “to bring together refugee, immigrant, and native-born children in an academically challenging and nurturing environment.” The five-year-old school now has 370 students from K-sixth grade across two campuses and “is home to the highest percentage of refugees in the southeastern United States.”


“My own personal interest involves the desire to have my children be part of a community and learn about others more than just “facts.” This extends to relationships that I have gained with other families and knowledge that there are others that will genuinely care for my kids as I use my effort in ways that support the school. My fundamental desire to see the school succeed go to my own belief that we will each be ultimately judged according to how we treat “the least of these” and that that imperative involves more than simply giving money to some far away cause when the need is immediate and right next door. The valuing of community is absent from the traditional schools and often from American society in general,” Marney explains.


Getting In:


As you can see, there is much diversity between charter and magnet schools. Do your research and find the schools that most suit your needs. And then, veteran moms say apply to many. Applying to a magnet or charter school takes patience and tenacity—plus a back-up plan.


“We originally applied to two or three charters along with the magnet for Kindergarten.  We didn’t get into any of them,” explains Trina about the years before her son Jacob entered Kindergarten in Los Angeles.


“Jacob went to Beethoven Street Elementary public school (with Leo) and we were actually quite happy with his class for him—though I could see that for kids at one end or other of the spectrum, their needs weren’t necessarily being met (high-achievers were bored and acting out and low-achievers were not yet diagnosed with learning disabilities),” she explains.


Trina had to have a back-up plan, as she couldn’t consider private schools as they were too expensive for her. She continued putting her son on the lists for other magnet and charter schools for first grade and she also explored moving to a smaller city with good public schools in the case Jacob didn’t get into a magnet or charter school of choice.


Although it took an extra year to get in, Trina strongly encourages parents to apply to magnet or charter schools.


“We received extra points because our home (public) school was low performing. The next year we had more points. So, is it hard to get in? Yes. Can you get in? Yes. Should you have a back up plan? Yes,” she says.Related Story: Figuring Out if You Can Afford Private School