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Students, faculty inspired by magnet schools’ approach

First-grader Paris Aske keeps a tight hold on her mother, Amanda Aske, during orientation at Ramsey Magnet School of Science on Friday.  (Kathy Plonka)
First-grader Paris Aske keeps a tight hold on her mother, Amanda Aske, during orientation at Ramsey Magnet School of Science on Friday. (Kathy Plonka)

Anna Wilson remembers the first-grader who told her the schoolwide science day at Ramsey Elementary had been the best day of his life.

“How can you argue with that?” said Wilson, principal of the Coeur d’Alene school. “They were learning; they were having fun; it was hands-on.”

That science day two years ago planted a seed that this year has grown into Ramsey’s designation as a magnet school for science. As most North Idaho students head back to school today, Ramsey becomes the latest among the Coeur d’Alene School District’s “schools of choice.” Seven of the district’s 17 schools have eliminated attendance boundaries and focused on a particular topic or teaching method to attract any students wishing to attend, said Superintendent Hazel Bauman.

Sorenson Magnet School of the Arts and Humanities launched its program in 2007, and Lakes Magnet Middle School began focusing on science, health and art in 2009. Coeur d’Alene High School offers Advanced Placement classes, and Lake City High School has the International Baccalaureate college preparatory program. Hayden Meadows Elementary School offers preparation for the IB program. Project CDA is an alternative high school.

Bauman said that this year the special designations have led to the enrollment of 200 students who weren’t previously attending district schools. Considering the district receives slightly more than $6,000 in state money annually for each enrollment, the switch adds up to increased funds. However, Bauman said, the district also had lost students over the years to the Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, to home-schooling and to private schools. She said the shift represents the district’s effort to compete for students by offering more choice.

“We think that the patrons of our district like choices,” Bauman said. “A one-size-fits-all focus or curriculum is not really what we know our patrons to want.”

Three of the schools – Ramsey, Sorenson and Lakes – require uniforms, including polo shirts, T-shirts or sweatshirts in a variety of colors, with a school logo. Ramsey’s shirts show the emblem of Ramsey Science Magnet – a picture of a microscope, a beaker and an atom.

Part of the curriculum for the first- through fifth-graders is three nine-week-long labs. Last year, in preparation for the science focus, third-graders studied animal habitats using live hermit crabs. They observed them, wrote in journals about them and prepared their habitat. This year, first-graders will study cycles of life, receiving caterpillars that they will watch grow into butterflies and then release.

The science curriculum also informs other course work. When the third-graders were learning to write instructions, they wrote how to create the hermit crab habitat, which had particular relevance to them, Wilson said. Fifth-graders who needed to learn to write friendly letters wrote them to the Hecla Mining Co. geologist who spoke to them about rocks and minerals during another lab session.

The science specialty becomes a backdrop for teaching many lessons, Wilson said. A music teacher is seeking a grant to put on a musical about the weather, she said, and the physical education teacher is exploring ways to add science into gym classes.

“I’ve never seen anything unify a staff like this,” Wilson said. “It’s very powerful.”

The focus also has drawn new students. About 125 of the school’s 580 students are new, and of them, 85 did not attend Coeur d’Alene School District schools last year, Wilson said. Four additional sections were added, so the school still has some room, Wilson said.

Kole Sjostrom, 6, of Coeur d’Alene, was among the first-graders visiting Ramsey on Friday to meet teachers and tour the school. The Sjostroms live within the Fernan Elementary zone, but chose Ramsey because the math and science emphasis fits well for Kole, said his father, Davon.

“He’s just a very inquisitive kid and asks a lot of questions. He’s out trying to figure things out,” Davon Sjostrom said, adding that he hasn’t seen public schools offer choices before. “It’s nice to have options.”

In Lakes Middle School’s first year as a magnet school last year, Principal Chris Hammons said he saw students becoming more excited at the start of each quarter, which allowed them to pick a new nine-week elective in science, health or the arts. Specializing in science and the arts also provides an opportunity for elementary students coming from Sorenson and Ramsey to continue focusing on those subjects if they choose, he said.

“It’s been a real pleasure to me to see the excitement of the kids,” Hammons said.

Hammons said school officials decided to become a magnet in part when they saw the district’s population migrating north, away from downtown. Adding the focus on science, health and art has helped attract new students and stabilize the school’s population at about 600, he said. About 75 new students registered for Lakes this year, he said.

Bauman said the shift to “schools of choice” hasn’t been top-down; it’s come from that kind of grass-roots effort at each school that has converted. She said parents have expressed an interest also in having schools that focus on foreign language or technology. Bauman said she won’t close the door to additional specialties, but her priority now is to make sure the ones that exist settle into their roles successfully.

“When you see a school gaining 50, 60, 100 students that they didn’t have before,” Bauman said, “that tells me that we’ve hit upon a focus that resonates with parents and students.”

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