Lexington-Richland 5 Superintendent Stephen Hefner walks into a classroom filled with pianos at Irmo High School, sits down and begins to play.
It feels pretty good.
And he knows the students sitting around him probably feel the same way when they play.
To Hefner, doing something interesting makes for a better student.
Magnet schools are a way to satisfy “hunger” for personalized learning that makes going to school exciting instead of rote, Hefner said.
That’s the theme of his decades-long advocacy of magnet schools, which allow students from across a school district to come together and drill down on one specialty, such as the arts.
Magnets gives students the chance to get good at something they really like. And, theoretically, the students improve their grades in other areas, including the core subjects of reading and math.
But beyond helping students learn better, the great push for magnet instruction has a larger goal: It’s the hope that customized instruction can help truly bolster, even “save,” public education.
“With the increasing challenges for public schools, some parents see magnets as a solution,” University of South Carolina education professor Nate Carnes said.
Public education has to be everything to everyone. But a cookie-cutter approach can end up being not good enough for all students, critics say.
Supporters call magnet schools a savior for public schools because:
▪ The concentrated studies in flexible environments shake up rigid, long-standing school attendance patterns.
▪ They tend to help create racial and social diversity in schools that might not have been very diverse before.
▪ They help attract students the district might otherwise lose – students whose parents can afford to send them to private schools, to home school them or to move them to another district.
▪ And they can help improve some schools with poor academic performance that too easily could continue to create generations of failing students.
“We want all schools to be viewed as desirable, we want them to have something that they do exceedingly well,” Hefner said. “We want people to want to go there.”
As a superintendent, Hefner has transformed first Richland 2, and then Lexington-Richland 5, with an emphasis on magnet learning. He isn’t alone in his belief. Other educators across South Carolina are advocates, too.
But Hefner’s singular efforts mean about 15,000 students today in Columbia area public schools – 1 in 7 – are learning through magnet plans that he has helped launch and fostered for 26 years.
His motto is: “Each school should be uncommonly good at those things commonly offered at each school and be great at one thing not commonly offered at other schools.”
An approach developed in the 1960s as part of efforts to end racial segregation, magnet education still works because it allows students and families to customize learning at schools they choose, Hefner said.
Allowing students that flexibility through elementary, middle and high schools pays off in matching interests that improve academic performance, he said.
“They have different avenues,” Hefner said of students. “It’s whatever they connect with.”
Magnet instruction is one of an increasing array of options in a trend toward personalizing education while making sure students still meet graduation standards, supporters say.
It got its name because the theme at a school is designed to attract students with diverse backgrounds from across a district as an alternative to attending neighborhood schools.
The offerings tend to attract what educators call talented and gifted students who want more challenges. But they also can motivate mid-level students, supporters say.
Magnets tend to spark innovation that gradually spreads to other classrooms, USC’s Carnes said.
“It’s almost like the honors college at the University of South Carolina,” Dutch Fork High School principal Greg Owings said. “It’s the same principle.”
State education officials count 145 magnet specialties with nearly 71,000 students in 16 of the 82 school districts across South Carolina.
In the Midlands, the instruction is concentrated in the two districts Hefner has led, along with a bit in Lexington 2, state officials say.
Other districts, such as Lexington 1, offer foreign language immersion classes that also can be part of a magnet approach. But such instruction isn’t classified by state officials as magnet.
Some of the state’s three dozen charter schools – largely privately operations with more limited state supervison – also mirror many aspects of magnet instruction.
Richland 2 remains committed to magnets even though Hefner left six years ago.
“If it’s something kids are interested in and connect with, they learn more,” Superintendent Debbie Hamm said.
‘Visionary for schools’
Lexington-Richland 5 officials recruited Hefner in 2012 to oversee schools with 17,200 students on the north side of Lake Murray shortly after he stepped down at Richland 2.
“He’s a visionary for schools,” Lexington-Richland 5 board President Robert Gantt said. “Who better to lead us?”
Hefner has moved slowly in establishing magnets in Chapin, Dutch Fork, Harbison, Irmo and St. Andrews, opening six since he took charge.
That pace reflects both financial constraints and making sure families are comfortable with the idea.
“I’m a slow-and-steady-wins-the-race kind of guy,” Hefner said.
Some parents there are happy with the magnets created since 2014.
A focus on environmental education that extends beyond science class has made her two children more engaged in learning at Dutch Fork Elementary School in Irmo, Sara Green said.
The theme is applied in other classes, such as math and reading, she said.
Tending to gardens and working together to develop a nature trail on campus also taught students of all ages about teamwork and mutual respect, Green said.
“Those are things I didn’t see before,” she said. “It has clearly improved a sense of community at the school.”
She was initially skeptical of the change from traditional instruction, but is now a big fan.
“I wasn’t really sure how it could be applied to the whole school,” Green said. “Now they’re getting a lot out of the experience.”
Magnets led Sarah Ostergaard’s family to settle in the Irmo area after moving to the Midlands six years ago.
One son is learning about butterflies by analyzing how the insects migrate and which plants allow them to flourish, she said. “They do what scientists do,” Ostergaard said.
Another son is more engrossed in all classes at Irmo High School after discovering theater and its carryover to other subjects, she said.
School-provided contact through social media also allows USC students studying overseas to pass along comments and ideas that amount to lessons in history, social studies and culture, her husband, Daniel, said.
“There’s enrichment that magnets add,” Sarah Ostergaard said.
Magnets typically spark students to be more attentive and active, USC’s Carnes said.
“Hands-on means minds-on as well,” he said.
Meanwhile, next month, the all-magnet Spring Hill High School near Chapin will graduate its first class of four-year attendees.
Despite accolades after twice being named state superintendent of the year, Hefner considers his promotion of magnets more pragmatic than groundbreaking.
He became an advocate for magnet schools midway through his 45-year career in education after realizing they are a way to keep older schools fully in use instead of empty as suburbia spread across northeast Richland County.
His style of collaboration means academic specialties at each magnet school are settled on with the advice of community leaders, students, parents and educators.
Science, technology, engineering and mathematics are popular choices, partly because they can be springboards to jobs after graduation. But other themes also hone career skills, educators say.
Magnets still must be tailored locally, advocates say.
“We want what’s best for kids,” said Sara Wheeler, a Hefner aide who since September has been president of the board of directors of the Washington, D.C.-based Magnet Schools of America. “We try to give them something they can’t refuse.”
The challenge for magnets is making sure the design of each is the right fit for a community, Carnes said. “You want to make sure the foundation is strong,” he said.
And it’s vital to keep such instruction up-to-date, Richland 2’s Hamm said.
“You need to revisit magnet programs occasionally,” she said. “You need to keep them relevant and keep them effective.”
The payoff has benefits that extend beyond magnet classrooms, she said.
Richland 2 adapted more smoothly to digital instruction for all students because experience with such technology in magnets provided lessons on what worked and what didn’t, Hamm said.
As they have evolved, magnets have grown beyond their original goal of social balance.
Today, they might be less diverse socially because their very nature attracts students with similar interests and outlooks, Carnes said.
It’s normal to encounter lots of questions as magnets are developed, because it’s a much different experience for many students, but families tend to become enthusiastic supporters after seeing results, Hefner said.
The popularity of magnets often means admission is by a lottery, since more students usually apply than can be admitted.
That kind of popularity should help public schools to keep pace with an increasing array of education options that allow customized learning.
“It puts us on an equal or better playing field,” said Gantt, Lexington-Richland 5’s board president. “That’s the driving force.”
Hefner isn’t joining those worried that federal support for magnets will decline under President Trump in favor of tax credits to promote other choices, particularly charter schools.
“No matter what other options come along, I want us to be viewed as the best option for as many students as possible,” he said.
Tim Flach: 803-771-8483
What’s a magnet school?
A magnet school is called that because its theme-based approach is designed to attract students from a broad geographical area.
The mix of students tends to be more diverse than in the traditional neighborhood school. And more parental involvement is encouraged.
The basics are taught through specialized instruction that emphasizes science, technology, mathematics, engineering, the arts and other ideas. Instruction is often customized for each student.
Magnets are started by and overseen by local school boards.
Charter schools, by contrast, are a hybrid that feature a similar approach in instruction to magnets. But charter schools can be created anywhere and operated by private groups under the general supervison of state education officials.