Andrew Campanella: What is a magnet school and what makes Simon G. Atkins Academic & Technology High School unique?
Joe Childers: [A magnet school] is simply a school that offers a program that is not generally available throughout that school district. When students choose to come here, they are making a commitment that, in addition to the regular high school graduation requirements in North Carolina, they are going to take a series of four unique STEM courses that are unique to Atkins. It might be four engineering courses, four health science or biotechnology courses, four courses in computer game design or digital media. But they make a commitment to STEM courses. I think that helps us build a unique school. The other thing that’s different for us compared to other high schools is that we have a lot of academic competition teams and fine arts competition teams that we really stress.
Andrew: What role do extracurricular activities play at your school?
Joe: There are lots of different ways for kids to be a part of our school, so it’s not the stereotypical high school where athletics is the tail that wags the dog. Athletics is an important part of our school, but it’s only one part of our school as far as extracurriculars go. We always tell parents that, because of the way we structure things, it gives students lots of opportunities for rich material for a high school resume when they’re applying to colleges. We do a big annual letterman banquet at the end of the year and on that night we recognize the best of the best in all the activities. We do it alphabetically, so athletics are mixed right in with all of the other groups. When you alphabetize everything, it falls as a smorgasbord. It’s not like this [specific] group of kids, then they can go home because they’re done. Everyone’s there until the end and it honors everyone equally. That’s really what we try to be all about.
Andrew: In terms of getting into your school, how does a family enroll?
Joe: We enter our recruitment season in November, but you must apply to a magnet school during the first three weeks of January. They just simply go online and complete the application. It is straight lottery. The only exception— there is an engineering STEM middle school in our district. That school is our magnet feeder school. If a student goes to Hanes Magnet Middle School and chooses to come to Atkins, they can be exempt from the lottery. Or if you already have a sibling at Atkins, you can be exempt from the lottery. Otherwise everyone goes in a straight lottery.
Andrew: A question some people may have about magnet schools is, “How will my child learn reading or English in a magnet school if it’s just about science and technology?”
Joe: In the computer game design classes, before the teachers will ever let them touch a computer or even think about principles of designing a game, [students] spend a lot of time talking about games and what makes a good game. The catch is, kids have to be able to write clear, concise game rules before they’re ever allowed to touch a computer. You ask them, “How many of you have ever had to put [something] together and you tried to follow the directions and you simply couldn’t do it?” Everyone can relate to that. So we try to instill in them that this is why it’s important that you’re able to write concisely, so that if you’re in this [industry] you can fit into any part of it from beginning to end, including the writing piece. Or, for example, our engineering students keep engineering notebooks. Several years ago the engineering teachers collaborated with the English teachers on components of that notebook that would make the notebook better for the engineering teachers, but would also be demanding skills that English teachers wanted to see from those students when they got to English class.
Andrew: How and why do you celebrate during National School Choice Week?
Joe: We usually have one huge event in November, one huge event in early December, and then one huge event in January, which is right in the middle of the actual application period for us. During those events, most of our staff turn out, and lots of kids in the building come to showcase things that they love about Atkins, because our students are much better recruiters than we are as adults. A parent or a prospective student will listen to what kids have to say about the building because I think they figure kids are going to be honest with them. It’s sort of the tradition here now. Throughout the school year, if teachers have kids who are doing really neat projects, whether they are physical projects or digital projects, then one of our magnet coordinators just keeps all that together. Then they work on getting all those kids pulled together and pumped up about coming in and presenting to prospective students the things that get them excited about school. I just can’t tell you want a strong proponent I am of magnet schools. What reasonable parent would consider sending their child off to college without going and exploring numerous colleges and trying to figure out what the best fit is for their child? If you live in a school district that provides choice, why would you not do the same thing for high school?
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