November 05, 2013ATLANTA A glimpse into the future of the Fulton County School System could include a series of magnet schools drawing students to specialized curriculums, or a school bus system that mimics a city bus route with numerous stops.
As options for K-12 education expand each year through charter, private and parochial schools, public schools are being pressed to offer programs that attract students and parents. It sometimes comes down to marketing, say school officials.
"We are [committed to] the idea of choice and giving parents and the community options in education," said Fulton Schools Superintendent Robert Avossa. "Some parents want their kids focused on STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) or the arts, and we have to find ways to meet those needs."
The move two years ago to charter system status for Fulton Schools was the first rung on the ladder. Local schools now have options for flexibility and customization within their curriculum by being freed from many of the state mandates that potentially stifle creativity.
On Oct. 30, members of the Fulton County Board of Education and central office staff visited Charlotte (N.C.)-Mecklenburg Schools to view a dozen magnet schools in the system. Beginning in the 1990s, the large North Carolina system began developing magnet schools to deal with declining enrollments and a more integrated school population.
Today, about 30 of the system's 165 schools offer magnet programs, enrolling about 20 percent of their students to schools that offer such themes as Montessori, International Baccalaureate, world languages, military leadership and others.
It was a homecoming of sorts for Avossa, who came to Fulton Schools in 2011 from Charlotte-Mecklenburg after serving as the district's chief strategy officer. He explained the purpose for the visit from the Fulton contingent was not a sales call for a particular program, but more of an exploration into options.
"I did not want to focus on what [board members] liked or did not like about each school, but to think differently about the choices and options for our own community," said Avossa.
For the board members, the experience was beneficial.
"Every school was unique, and a common thread was their emphasis on staff development," said Fulton Board President Linda Schultz of Roswell, who visited a STEM, language academy and early years IB schools. "I would like the [Fulton] school system to offer additional magnet options for students, and look forward to a board discussion on the topic."
Julia Bernath, whose district covers Roswell and Sandy Springs, also found value in the visit.
"I found it very exciting to learn about different delivery models and methods in which CMS district is offering choice across their district," said Bernath. "The trip provided a lot of food for thought as we continue on our charter system journey."
Avossa said the school board will discuss the concepts this month and determine the next steps for Fulton Schools.
The challenge facing Fulton is geography, and transporting students from one area of the county to schools outside their attendance zones. Currently, parents who opt for choice outside their home school must provide transportation; a burden and barrier for many.
Avossa said he would like to explore what other school systems offer, which is a bus system that doesn't rely on school buses traveling routes to one school, then back to the base. Instead, buses would have various stop and deliveries.
One element that will come before any decision is an understanding of what the community wants. The ill-fated Connected Academy in Alpharetta serves as a constant reminder of imposing a solution prior to determining a need. The high school opened in 2006, then shut down three years later after having never developed a clear vision or attracting sufficient students.
"We have to get school board input and buy-in, then go to the community and spend the time determining what they consider a valid option," said Avossa. "We can't lead with the option before the market tells us what they want."
There are currently two magnet programs in Fulton County Schools: North Springs Charter High School (arts, math/science) in Sandy Springs and Westlake High School (math/ science) in South Fulton.