Making Every School A Magnet School

By Lloyd D. Jackson

For more than three decades, Arkansas’ Hot Springs School District lost 15 to 20 students per grade and 100 to 150 per year. The enrollment erosion resulted in continued state funding cuts and threatened the district with financial distress.

With five school districts in Garland County, where Hot Springs is located, white middle-class families had many choices. And starting in the late 1960s, those choices increasingly involved moving to the suburbs, leading to increased poverty and more challenges within the district’s boundaries.

What could be done?

The school board, fearing that a continued downturn would eventually force the district to shut its doors, decided in 2000 to take a large risk by converting all of Hot Springs’ traditional schools into magnet programs. Opening up the district and allowing parents to chose where to send their children helped stabilize enrollment, increase achievement, and improve diversity across the system.

By all accounts, it is a risk that has paid off.

Hot Springs and magnet schools

Hot Springs’ magnet program, which involves four elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school, became part of a multidistrict federal desegregation order in 2000. Today, students from 12 other districts can attend our schools if the transfer will improve racial isolation.

Magnet schools are a form of school choice that allows parents to pick where they want to send their children. All students have the same opportunity to enroll in Hot Springs, but priority is given to students who are returning to a school or to those who have siblings already in the same school. More than 90 percent of applicants are placed in their first choice school.

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