Parents of prospective Champaign Unit 4 kindergarten students this fall have another factor to consider when exploring the school choice process.
A $9.6 million, five-year federal grant fueled the creation of three magnet schools: Two elementary schools – Garden Hills Academy and Stratton Academy of the Arts – along with one middle school, Franklin STEAM Academy. It has paved the way for students to become immersed in specific curriculum areas throughout their K-8 education.
“We were very fortunate to be awarded the magnet grant in 2017,” said Unit 4 director of magnet schools, Peter Foertsch, adding that Champaign was one of less than 40 districts nationwide to receive it. “It’s a true investment in our community and our Unit 4 schools. (It’s) a special choice for families to choose their kids to enroll in.”
The crux of the situation is that parents will have more options to consider for the education of their children. Unit 4’s school choice program makes it possible for students to criss-cross the city to attend school, and the adoption of magnet schools adds another layer to consider.
“We’re all about trying to improve student outcomes, diversifying our schools to make our three magnet campuses climates work,” Foertsch said. “(With) Magnet schools, hopefully help when you ask your student, ‘What did you do at school today?’ it’s not just (a response of) ‘Uh …’ You get (instead), ‘Man, I did this cool engineering thing with designing devices to help younger kids skate.’”
The three schools received the grant – as opposed to other Unit 4 schools – because they fit the criteria of the grant.
“Not every school can apply for a magnet grant because one of the big indicators to receive the grant is that schools are overrepresented in low income or, in the case of our schools, our African American population is over-represented,” Foertsch said. “When you think about those three campuses, they do not represent the Champaign community as a whole, nor are they equal to the other campuses we have in Unit 4. They’re just drastically different. So the student experience at that campus is, and looks, different than the other campuses. So part of that work is attracting students who might not choose a Garden Hills or Stratton or Franklin, hence the ‘magnet.’ And it further diversifies those schools. Research has shown that students who are in a school that is truly diverse benefit from that.”
Each school has a curriculum, equipment and facility geared toward its theme. (Example: Each has a maker space.) All three also have developed partnerships with various entities in the local and state communities. As an example, Garden Hills’ STEM campus has partnerships with UChicago STEM Education, the University of Illinois’ College of Engineering as well as its Center for Education in Small Urbana Communities.
For parents of a 2019-20 kindergartener, obtaining information about Stratton and Garden Hills could be paramount. There could be other considerations as well. If you want your child to experience a so-called “typical” elementary school but perhaps obtain a STEAM-based education later on at Franklin, it might behoove parents to list one of the following schools – all of whom feed into Franklin – as their top choice for kindergarten: Barkstall, Booker T. Washington STEM Academy, Dr. Howard or Garden Hills. (FYI: Stratton feeds into Jefferson Middle School.)
“(The feeder) policy isn’t changing this year; that doesn’t mean it (won’t) change in the future,” Foertsch said of the feeder patterns into the middle schools. “Our leadership team watches and analyzes the choice data and the feeder pattern data and that dictates a whole lot of decisions.”
In any case, parents are encouraged to seek out information on the magnet schools. Foertsch said each has staff that “are specifically there to help the magnet and coordinators at each campus,” and they are happy to provide tours and other options. Unit 4 has a new website dedicated to the magnets. Foertsch is available for inquiries.
“When people think about ‘choice’ they think, oh, it’s that scary thing that I don’t know about. But truly, families have a lot of choice. They have these specific choices with the theme-based curriculums, and unique learning units at our magnet schools,” Foertsch said. “And that can be a K-8 experience for your kiddo. It’s also a great opportunity for our community to invest in our schools. ‘I’m choosing this magnet school because I believe in diversity and my family can benefit from the opportunity that those schools have.’ That’s really important and one of our big mission things.”
Check out our first-person series with the Pridemore family as it goes through the school choice process.