More magnets mean more choice for students in Lexington-Richland 5

It’s not hard to envision Ebenezer Scrooge and Tiny Tim on stage before hundreds of people at Irmo High School this winter, as dusty concrete and metal rafters begin to take shape as the school’s new fine arts center.

Not just for performing arts, the new center will be a place to “infuse a sense of play and fun and innovation into what (students) are learning,” Principal David Riegel said.

“One of our goals as a school is to teach creativity and innovation,” Riegel said. “We think those are important skills that employers need, that students need when they graduate. We think the arts can help with that.”

The soon-to-be-completed auditorium and lobby, the centerpiece of the school’s new International High School for the Arts magnet program, quite literally embody Lexington-Richland 5’s growing emphasis on magnet education programs.

Thanks to a boost from a $10.3 million federal grant last fall, the district – among the state’s top-rated – has doubled the number of magnet programs available to students, with 10 themes offered at nine elementary, middle and high schools this year.

More than 600 of the district’s 16,220 students applied to enroll in magnet programs this year, the first using a system-wide lottery selection for available seats in magnet schools, which include newly launched programs at Dutch Fork Elementary, Irmo Middle, Irmo High and Seven Oaks Elementary.

“People want different choices in their lives,” said Mark Bounds, the district’s chief information officer. “The parents have their most precious resource, so they're thinking about, ‘Where can my child fit the best that they’re going to be most likely to be successful, most likely to want to go to school every day?’”

A magnet program teaches the same curriculum as any traditional school, following the same academic standards. The difference is magnet schools are based on a theme, such as arts, science or global studies, and all subjects are taught with the overlay of that theme.

For instance, at the Dutch Fork Elementary Academy for Environmental Science, students could latch onto the school’s magnet theme in an English and language arts class by reading and writing about environmental subjects. Meanwhile, students at the Irmo International High School for the Arts could be using landscape photography to understand how to measure angles in a math class.

“It brings relevance to something that naturally motivates a student, which may then lead to a career path,” said Christina Melton, the distict’s chief instructional officer.

Students share interests

How to write a five paragraph essay was a concept that never quite clicked for 15-year-old Reagan Tedder until last year, when a teacher explained an essay through the metaphor of a sciencific theorem.

“When I was able to get English from that math standpoint, it really helped,” she said.

A 10th-grader at Spring Hill High School, Reagan’s goal is to become a plastic surgeon. She loves math and science but is less enthusiastic about language arts.

That’s why she’s a perfect fit in Spring Hill’s engineering magnet academy, where students learn all the traditional high school subjects, including English, history and the arts, through the lens of science and math.

Spring Hill, which opened last year, is an all-magnet high school consisting of five themed academies focused on engineering, entrepreneurship, enterntainment, environmental studies and exercise science.

Reagan’s mother, Suzanne Tedder, said she’s been pleased to see her daughter surrounded by other students who care about the same subjects as Reagan.

“When you have students with similar interests and career goals grouped together, they can work on long-term projects in their field,” Suzanne Tedder said.

Teachers get creative

It takes a different way of thinking and creativity for teachers to figure out how to pull the thread of one theme throughout every classroom, but the end result is “something that is innovative and exciting for kids,” said Caitlyn McKenzie, the lead teacher at Irmo Middle School’s new International Academic Magnet program.

McKenzie will be coaching teachers on ways to implement the school’s global studies theme in their individual subjects.

It is “absolutely” a challenge, she said.

But, said Amy Umberger, the “resident scientist” at the new Dutch Fork Elementary Academy for Environmental Science, the reward for that challenge is greater cohesion among all teachers in a school.

“I think that because of testing, our schools have become very sectionalized,” Umberger said. “And I think what’s powerful about a magnet is you do have an overarching theme ... that has a global implication.”