Monday, May 7, 2012

Magnets and choice in Reno

Reader Ashley Holmes wanted to know what incoming Superintendent Heath Morrison thinks about magnet schools.  His short answer:  "I love having options for students." 

The Washoe County School District doesn't have as many magnets as Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools,  but Morrison recently launched magnet programs for gifted and talented students in four middle schools  (I'll be writing more about that).  Like CMS partial magnets, they're housed within a nonmagnet school.  Morrison said when it comes to the full vs. partial question,  his most important rule is "that form follows function."

Morrison has also started "signature academies" in high schools,  which offer themes ranging from health sciences to International Baccalaureate and offer seats to students who live outside the school zone.  Morrison says they're not the same as CMS magnets,  but it's another form of academic choice.

Like North Carolina,  Nevada also has charter schools  --  including eight that are sponsored by Morrison's district.  They were created about 10 years ago,  well before he arrived in 2009.  While I was in Reno,  Morrison told a parents' group he doesn't think charters are the answer to the nation's educational challenges,  but he supports those that provide a clear benefit to students.

"I am a fan of great schools,"  he said.  "If they're great charter schools I'm happy.  If they're great public schools I'm happy."

I visited the district-sponsored Academy for Career Education, a charter high school that trains students for careers in construction, architecture,  design and diesel technology.  It was created by construction executives and former Washoe County School District employees who thought the district wasn't doing enough career education.  Morrison calls it one of the district's best charters.

Mike Cate,  a contractor who helped create the academy,  said Morrison has been more supportive than his predecessors.  "The previous superintendents,  they looked at us more as a competitive school,"  Cate said.  "As long as it's an environment where the kids learn,  (Morrison) is for it."

ACE students go to school in a converted building at the Reno airport and do a lot of hands-on work -- everything from building houses to using the latest design software.  One advantage of being a charter,  Cate said,  is that students who fight are "fired,"  just like they would be on a construction job. When you have students working with nail guns, hammers and power tools,  he said,  you can't afford discipline problems.

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