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Attracting talent: Behind the scenes at two acclaimed magnet schools

While you’re hitting the snooze button between 5:30 and 6:30 a.m., hundreds of Las Vegas kids are hopping on buses and piling into cars for the big commute to school.

While you’re staggering to the shower, these kids are arriving at school for an early-bird class some call “zero hour.”

While you’re pouring your first cup of coffee, they’re learning to sing opera, speak Japanese and splice genes.

Why so eager? Because they’re in a magnet school, an oasis of inspiration in the desert of public education.

Originally designed to promote diversity among public school districts, magnet school programs offer themed curricula that attract kids (and parents of kids) looking to spike the standard required education with specialties such as hospitality management, information technology and international studies.

Of its 357 schools, 17 in the Clark County School District have magnet programs. They were singled out because they needed a boost.

“The intent was to reduce racial isolation and allow the demographics on all school campuses to be similar,” says Dr. Christine Gross, director of magnet schools for the district, “but the philosophy behind that is, if there’s one that’s unbalanced, but successful, leave it alone. But if there’s a community that’s struggling, then the magnet program can help.”

Is it working? Yes … at least at Bridger. From 2005 to 2010, the school’s state standardized test scores rose from 47 percent to 63.5 percent in literacy, and from 38 percent to 60.3 percent in math.

Magnet schools cropped up in the 1960s as a way to make public schools in disadvantaged neighborhoods so attractive to people in better-off areas that they’d drive across town to get their kids there. The U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program offers grants to get them up and running.

Clark County School District didn’t get its first magnet school, Mabel Hoggard Math & Science Magnet Elementary School, until 1993, but apparently the district is a quick study. For the 2010-2011 school year, 14 Clark County schools took honors in Magnet Schools of America’s annual awards. One — the Academy of Math, Science and Technology at Jim Bridger Middle School — received an Excellence Award, the highest category of recognition. This puts Bridger in the running to win the prize for best magnet school in the country, the Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award — which a local school just happens to already have hanging on its walls. Gilbert Magnet School for Communication and Creative Arts in North Las Vegas received the  Simpson Award in 2009-2010.

While Bridger attracts kids who may someday cure cancer or design a better space shuttle, Gilbert is for the next host of CNN’s “360” or headliner on Broadway. But the vision of a stellar future for their kids is one thing these two standout schools have in common: They’re incubators for youngsters who opt for studying or rehearsing over, say, playing video games.

As Nicole Molineri, mother of one former and two current Gilbert students, puts it, “At a magnet school, you can be around people who are like you, and avoid being frustrated by slackers throwing spit-wads.”

It’s the faculty’s job to create an optimal environment for the students. Many magnet program teachers receive special training for their programs, yet they get no additional compensation for it, and any costs come out of the school’s budget or the teacher’s pocket — unless they’re lucky enough to bag a grant.

So what’s in it for them? It’s as rewarding a teaching gig as you can get. In the days of dwindling public education budgets — and thus teacher salaries and benefits — that’s more important than ever.

“I love the freedom to be able to teach through the arts and to see the children learn that way,” says Wendy Payer, a first-grade teacher at Gilbert. “If I had to go to a school now where I was given a stack of books and told I had to be at lesson one on Monday, and lesson two on Tuesday, I honestly don’t think I could do the job.”

Magnet program teachers are so into their job that they show up an hour earlier than their non-magnet colleagues. They’re there to offer the extra daily class that magnet programs require … starting at around 7 a.m.


Capstone, Bridger Middle School

“So, I have two sets of numbers. That’s not a lot of data, but we can make a decent set of charts from it. If I select them, then go to the insert tab, then charts, and click … here. There it is.”

“Ohhh,” say the 16 students watching Steve Woytowish demonstrate a chart wizard in PowerPoint. The wiry technology teacher is snatching statistics from a report on American workout habits and plugging them into a hypothetical presentation on health and fitness trends. Actual topics being developed for the class, Capstone, include breakthroughs in cancer research, accomplishments of space shuttle missions and applications of genetic engineering.

“Does it get any easier than that?” Woytowish bursts. “Visually, does that have more impact than just words? Do you think something like this might be useful for some of your statistics?”

“Yeah,” a lone spokesman exclaims. Everybody else is already busy scanning their notes for numbers they can use to generate the multi-colored slices of pie. With their final Capstone presentations just weeks away, the students are keenly interested in ways to fill the onerous 35 to 40 minutes of presentation time in front of their parents and peers.

“We went to the high school programs and asked the teachers what they wanted us to teach them,” Jan Sherry, magnet program coordinator at Bridger, explains. “They said, ‘Can you teach them how to write?’”

Capstone was born. Like a senior thesis project for eighth graders, the independent study walks students through the process of researching, writing and presenting an in-depth report on a math or science topic. In addition to mastering American Psychological Association style, students must incorporate a variety of media into their presentations.

“Really, this is the key to succeeding in college and beyond,” Woytowish says. “Once you’ve nailed the writing process, you can use it to do anything you want.”


Super 6 News, Gilbert Elementary School

It’s 30 minutes until the start of “Super 6 News,” Gilbert Elementary School’s daily announcements, and time for the first read-through of today’s script. Forget the disembodied wonk over a loudspeaker that constituted daily announcements of yore. This is a live video broadcast — 8 News Now-style.

Gilbert teachers oversee script-writing for the daily 15-minute segments, and Theater Manager Don Korkow oversees production, but a team of 16 fourth and fifth grade kids do the heavy lifting both on and off the set. They run the cameras, floor monitors and teleprompters; roll graphics, sound- and video-bites; and otherwise man the control room, while a team of two anchors presents news, topical reports, weather and the all-important lunch menu.

“It’s oatmeal month,” declares co-anchor Morgan in a recent Super 6 News installment. Morgan’s co-anchor Seanna adds, “We celebrate National Oatmeal Month in January, because that’s when the most oatmeal is bought.”

The segment comes complete with benign banter between anchors, segues and tosses, everything you’d expect from TV news.

“Every day it’s a new script,” Korkow says. “Each team gets a week on a position, then they rotate, so they get to learn all the skills involved in creating a broadcast.”

Learning digital production became possible in 2000, when a donation allowed Gilbert to build a theater that is unique among the district’s elementary schools. In addition to a 418-seat theater, the facility houses a dance studio — where members of Nevada Ballet Theatre teach dance lessons three mornings per week — and a fully equipped TV studio.

“Getting the theater was a big change,” says Stacy Testo, Gilbert’s magnet theme coordinator, recalling the days when the Super 6 crew had to hold up cue cards made of poster board. “Now, we have a teleprompter, and a ChromaCube wall, and a switcher that does virtual sets … it’s just totally evolved.”


Biomedicine, Bridger

“OK, I’m going to start the class,” says biomedicine teacher Kurt Studer. “One… two… three.”

It’s like he’s hypnotizing the 29 kids in the classroom. A hush falls over them, and Studer begins his demonstration of a gel electrophoresis experiment they’ll be doing themselves the following day.

Yes, seventh graders at Bridger Middle School learn genetic engineering. (Attention humanities types: gel electrophoresis is a process in which researchers use a gel and an electric current to separate different chemicals, proteins or DNA strands.)

Studer holds up a rectangular plastic thingy: “Here’s the gel. You pour it in and the next thing you do is stick your protein in. … You have six different protein solutions. They will separate out from each other. The one that goes the furthest has to be the what?”

“The lightest,” a few kids offer.

Studer: “Yes, the lightest. You have a tank in front of you. You’re going to stick your gel in the tank. … What do I need next?”

Kids: “A buffer.”

Studer: “Yes, the buffer should be roughly an eighth of an inch. …”

And so it goes, for about half an hour. Apart from the kid who has to keep jumping up and sitting down at Studer’s command to switch the lights off and on, the class is perfectly still, riveted by the details of the coming experiment.

Studer, however, is all over the place. The picture-perfect science geek sporting a buzz cut, black-rimmed glasses and rolled-up sleeves darts between an overhead projector and the middle of the room, where he can hold up objects for more students to see. He passes things around. He shuffles papers. He’s obviously enjoying himself.

A lot of hard work precedes the fun. There was literally no textbook for a middle school biomedicine class, so Studer had to develop his own curriculum. He spends his spare time reading scientific journals, attending symposia, doing whatever he can to stay on top of what’s coming next in the profession — all to better prepare the future doctors and scientists in his classes.

It’s paying off. Later that day, Courtney Sunden, an eighth grader who specializes in biomedicine, explains that, based on conversations with friends in non-magnet schools, she believes Bridger is better because of how much the teachers care.

“They’re willing to help if you want to go deeper into something,” she says. “They’ll stay after school to help you figure something out.”

Sunden has applied only to high schools with magnet programs where she can continue her biomedicine studies. She wants to be a doctor someday.

This is going exactly according to the district’s plan. “Career clusters” — groups of elementary, middle and high schools with magnet programs offering the same specialties — are designed to keep students coming back for more of what tickles their gray matter.

“When we start with elementary magnet programs and we’re able to use a theme-based curriculum, it engages the students,” says Gross. “Our data shows that they maintain a high level of engagement as they move from elementary, to middle, to high school.”

And a high level of engagement means good grades — for Courtney, for Bridger and for the school district.


Aerospace, Bridger

You know that expression, “It’s not rocket science”? Bridger students are doomed to be baffled by it their whole lives. See, they can learn rocket science in seventh grade.

Today, Terence Wood’s fifth period is building air rockets. They’ll launch them by the end of the week, using bike pumps for power. Next, they’ll move on to rockets with engines. They’ll launch those after Spring Break.

The class’s air rockets are built from kits, but, Wood adds proudly, “in Civil Air Patrol, we build our own.”

Wood is referring to an after-school program he leads, a squadron of 33 cadets affiliated with Nellis Air Force Base. Like ROTC for pilots, Civil Air Patrol is an auxiliary program of the U.S. Air Force. And Mr. Wood is actually Captain Wood, a retired Air Force pilot who, after teaching for more than two decades, went through special training to become a Civil Air Patrol officer.

For a group that only meets once a week on Wednesdays, the Civil Air Patrol gets a lot done. The cadets present the colors at community meetings; participate in food drives and service-dog programs; and help with drug use prevention for at-risk youth. Yet they still find time to make an annual three-day study trip to San Diego, including a visit to the Aerospace Museum and an overnight stay on the USS Midway.

Wood is quick to stress that Civil Air Patrol is not a club. “When we sold it to Bridger, we explained that it’s an extension of the academic day,” he says. “We have aerospace education. We teach leadership skills, military courtesy and ceremony. Since we’ve been in existence, we’ve won the Aerospace Excellence Award (given by the national Civil Air Patrol) every year.”

But is it fun?

“Yes!” shouts a girl in Wood’s class wearing combat fatigues. She’s in CAP, and today there’s “PT” (“physical training” in civilian-speak).

Wood admits he does some recruiting in his classes, and it’s easy to spot the handful of Civil Air Patrol members by their camouflage. But ask Wood, Studer or Woytowish which of their students are in the magnet program (versus those who are at Bridger only because they’re zoned for it), and they aren’t sure.

This is an accomplishment for a magnet program, according to Gross. See, magnet programs are special programs within larger public schools (except at the elementary level, where all classes and students are part of the magnet program). Kids have to apply and be accepted to attend middle and high school magnet programs, but anybody in the zone can attend the schools’ non-magnet classes.

Seats in magnet programs are given through a weighted lottery system, and a certain number of seats are set aside for kids from the neighborhoods where schools are located. Nevertheless, in some cases, the “zone kids” are shut out of the themed programs.

“School administrators work diligently to develop a master schedule that allows neighborhood students in that school to have access to magnet courses,” Gross says.

At Bridger, where theme-based electives are filled with zone kids, the accessibility seems to be working.


Ms. Martinez’s first grade, Gilbert

It’s reading time in Katrina Martinez’s first grade class, but not everybody is lounging in the carpeted and pillowed area surrounded by bookcases.

Two first graders, Niko and Gianna, are at a table writing in their Tiny Topics Notebooks. Gianna says, “We get to take it home every day, so if we have ideas, we can write them down and bring them back.”

What kind of ideas she might write down, Gianna won’t say, but she proudly shows pictures she’s drawn of herself and her family and what may be their house. Or a beehive.

It’s impossible to imagine any kid’s home being more inspirational than Martinez’s classroom, a treasure trove of colorful graphics and three-dimensional objects — art supplies, books, toys spilling out of every square inch of space. It echoes the overall aesthetic of the school, whose halls are art galleries, its common space, a stage.

Add to this an erratic schedule: Kids leave their homeroom once a day every day for their themed classes (called “specials”) — art, drama, library, movement and music; once a week they have two specials; three times a week, they have “explorations,” non-core specials such as yoga and poetry; some kids may also leave homeroom for dance or music lessons; and then, there are events, such as a recent surprise performance by a traveling troupe of British actors.

You gotta wonder how anybody can focus.

Just then, Martinez begins the transition from reading time to math. As the kids stand up, they giggle and jostle.

“Let’s control our bodies,” the pixie-like teacher coos through her teardrop-shaped voice amplifier, which all Gilbert teachers wear during class time. The kids fall into a circle, suddenly chanting and moving in unison.

“We feel with our bodies,” they say as they run flattened hands up their legs to their shoulders.

“We share with our voice.” Two fingers go from the lips out to the center of the circle.

“We imagine with our minds.” Hands to their temples.

“We concentrate on the subject.” Their arms extend into the circle, hands flexed in a “stop” gesture.

“We cooperate with each other.” Arms link around the circle.

“Good,” Martinez beams.

She’s just employed a focusing strategy from the Actor’s Toolbox, a method that integrates drama and pedagogical techniques. With everyone’s full attention, she teaches even and odd numbers by having the students arrange themselves in pairs around the room, then complete a math sentence about their group.

Testo allows that it’s not the right environment for everyone. Parents come to tour the school, watch art-meets-education in action, and either love it — or don’t.

“The majority of our kids thrive,” she says. “Of course, you occasionally come across a child that needs a more structured environment. For that child, there are plenty of other options.”

But after a day behind the desks — and in front the teleprompters, among the scientific equipment and in the art-splashed hallways — at these magnet schools, you get the sense that these kids find them a very attractive option indeed. 


Courtney Sunden

"It totally opened my eyes."
Courtney Sunden is an eighth grader at Bridger and has been accepted to the Ed W. Clark High School Academy of Math, Science and Applied Technology, where she plans to continue studying biomedicine. It's a long way from where she was in fifth grade - struggling with math textbooks.

"On my CRTs (standardized tests) in math in fifth grade, I got a very low score. Gradually, from sixth to seventh grade at Bridger, it increased. I almost got a perfect 500 in math on my CRTs in seventh grade. So, there was a dramatic increase in my ability to learn."

It's perhaps a counterintuitive notion in this age when teens are plugged into iPods and obsessively texting friends, but Sunden says - surprise - she values learning.

"I have a good friend who's not in a magnet. Between fifth grade and now, from what I've seen, I focused more on academics, while she's still focusing on her social life."

Besides, she'll have time for that later, right? Okay, maybe not.

"My main career choice is becoming a general doctor in the ER. My other choice is medical examiner. Once I got to sixth grade and got into Mr. Studer's (biomedicine) class, it totally opened my eyes. I realized I want to do this for the rest of my life."

Xavier Morgan

"It's a privilege to be here."
Xavier Morgan is a seventh grader at the Academy of Math, Science and Technology at Jim Bridger Middle School and specializes in aviation.

"Our aerospace program here will give me an advantage when I get to college. I want to be a fighter pilot in the military. Civil Air Patrol helps with that, for basic military training and for piloting."

And that entails much more than book learning. Morgan's education took flight - literally.

"I flew the simulator and in real planes, gliders and Cessnas. I took off from North Las Vegas, went out to Indian Springs, went out to Henderson and came back to North Las Vegas." Note to worried parents: Yes, an instructor was with him on all flights. His last close call had nothing to do with flying, but was still a nail-biter.

"It's a privilege to be here," he says of Bridger. "I was placed in the alternative pool. I was about to go to (Clifford O.) Findlay (Middle School). I had purchased my P.E. gear and everything when I finally got the call that I was accepted to Bridger." Perfect landing.

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.