Urban education: Tale of two stories


It is one of the oldest, most heartwarming stories in literature. A young writer, born to a hardscrabble existence, chooses a path where his brilliance is recognized, encouraged, mentored, and catapulted towards greatness.

This is the path that playwright and actor Tarell Alvin McCraney took. He grew up in a tough part of Miami, with a mom who struggled through drug addiction until losing her life to AIDS. Tarell’s path took him through New World School of the Arts (NWSA), a magnet school that is part of the Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

AT NWSA, he received the Exemplary Artist award and the Dean's Award in Theater, and continued on to DePaul University in Chicago and then the Yale School of Drama. His plays have received so much critical acclaim that, two years ago, he won a MacArthur “Genius” award. Tarrell received $625,000 to alleviate any financial pressure in figuring out how to continue growing as an artist.

Tarell’s extraordinary career bypassed another story, however, one that is much more tragic. This one starts with children whose educational choices are too limited. They are born and raised in troubled homes located in impoverished neighborhoods. More than 16 million children fit this storyline — over one fifth of all children in the United States — growing up in families with incomes below the federal poverty level of $23,550 a year for a family of four.

These children usually have no choice but to go to their neighborhood schools. Across the country, many of these schools provide no shelter from outside problems and no way out for anyone, regardless of their abilities.

This second story is the more common vision of urban school systems, but there is a way to rewrite this tragedy. In the Miami-Dade school system, we have a saying that “one size fits none” — no child learns the same.

Families have a wide variety of choices of where kids can attend school — 500 choice programs in over 100 schools, with a magnet enrollment of over 57,000 students. These choices, all with specialized curriculums, help launch more careers like Tarell’s.

Magnet schools, in fact, are the original form of public school choice. They were created to reduce school segregation while providing high-quality education programs to all students. There are now over 3,500 magnet schools nationwide serving over 2 million students, and magnets make up one quarter of the top 100 schools in the U.S. News and World Report: High School Rankings.

Research from around the country testifies to the success of magnet schools in eliminating disparities while maintaining academic excellence. According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, for example, the magnet offerings in New York City have the highest proportion of multiracial schools in the city and the lowest proportion of segregated schools.

At the end of September, the Los Angeles Unified School District released an analysis revealing that 55 percent of all magnet school students scored at or above the state standard for English language arts, compared to 39 percent for charter school students. In math, magnet students scored 44 percent while charter students scored 28 percent.

Regrettably, the funding used to start magnet schools — the only federal assistance targeted at eliminating racially and socioeconomically segregated schools — is getting kicked around and pushed aside once again this year. With the current change in leadership at the U.S. Department of Education and a new president on the horizon, educators are worried about the direction that federal education policy will take now.

The only acceptable answer is educational options must continue to include magnet schools and traditional programs for students, and federal policy must ensure that these initiatives are supported and funded. Magnet schools, you see, crank out success stories just as well as even the most gifted writers — like Tarell Alvin McCraney.

Alberto Carvalho is superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools and principal of two award-winning magnet schools — the Primary Learning Center and the iPrep Academy.