Montclair's magnets - satisfying almost everyone

The unusual public school system in this New York City suburb doesn't satisfy everyone. But it appears to have solved a major racial problem, and it's giving both parents and students options they didn't have before.

Between 1960 and 1972 the school system was torn over the issue of racial segregation. Parents picketed and once occupied the school superintendent's office.

Forced busing further polarized the residents, 60 percent white and 40 percent black. White families were fleeing the town.

Along came Walter L. Marks, who in 1975 moved up from assistant superintendent to superintendent. At a tense community meeting he proposed a compromise. The neighborhood-school concept that many families wanted would be retained, but there would also be massive integration.

The trick, as Dr. Marks saw it, was to make schools in predominantly black neighborhoods attractive to white children and vice versa. The concept is known as ''magnet schools'' and has been implemented with varying degrees of success in Houston, Dallas, Detroit, and other cities.

In Montclair it worked this way: Two schools in black neighborhoods became ''gifted and talented'' magnets and two in white areas became ''fundamentals'' magnets. Parents were guaranteed a spot for their children in their neighborhood school, but they also could choose a different school if it offered a program that better suited the children's needs.

''Everyone loved it,'' says Stephen Rowe, director of elementary education. Mr. Rowe adds that white flight has stopped. And the schools have become so well known for their innovative programs that people from neighboring towns are paying tuition to send their children to Montclair.

Nishuane School, with 700 students from pre-kindergarten through second grade , is by far the largest elementary school in town. Though it is nominally for gifted and talented pupils, the Montclair philosophy is that every child is gifted in some area, so the school is actually open to everyone.

Nishuane is in the black section of town. But as with all schools in Montclair, it has to have a racial mix within 10 percent of the town's proportions. Thus at least 350 white students have to be enrolled at all times.

Half the classroom time is given to writing, reading, and arithmetic, says Mr. Rowe, as compared with 75 percent at the ''fundamentals'' magnets. The balance is taken up with more than 50 specialty courses ranging from kitchen chemistry, reptiles, and a study of the moon to creative writing, art, and advanced math. French and Spanish are offered from kindergarten up.

Some courses are open to all students, some require screening. Adjuncts from the community do a good part of the teaching.

Not all parents feel the system is working for their children. ''These gifted and talented schools are great for the exceptionally bright,'' says Phyllis Morin (and for the slow learner, adds another mother). ''But for anyone else you have to constantly keep after teachers and administrators, if your child is going to get a good education.''

She says her oldest son entered Nishuane in its first year under the current plan. He enjoyed the variety of courses but fell behind in the basics. She says no one seemed to notice. There were so many people and so many things to do, she says, that her son couldn't concentrate on the subjects he needed help in most.

She has tried her neighborhood school but says it is overcrowded and doesn't teach science until the fourth grade. She's looking into private schools now.

Monroe Freeman, principal at Nishuane, acknowledges the problems and says they are being solved. ''This year we're asking teachers to make sure students don't miss any reading and math time for the sake of other courses,'' he says.

Billie Runfolo knows the drawbacks of such a popular and diverse program -- but for her the advantages far outweigh the hassles. Her son, she says, is getting much more than he would in his neighborhood school. She says it's hard getting what you want at a school the size of Nishuane. ''But you learn tricks, '' she says. She always gets what she wants.

Joyce Casto, home-school coordinator for Nishuane, admits parents have to get involved. But she says that's how the system is designed to work. She says teachers can't always know all the special interests and needs of a child. But, she insists, ''there isn't a staff member who's not looking for the right place for every child.''

Even the loss of federal funds -- $618,000 this year, nearly 30 percent of last year's federal grant total - won't hurt Montclair's schools in critical areas, says Stephanie Robinson, director of funded programs.

''We've cut back on some supplies and travel, areas that don't affect the programs directly,'' she says. ''But there are always other sources of funds. New tax laws make it attractive for businesses to give money for public programs. For instance, we're looking into sharing of personnel with private industry and using old equipment.''

Montclair has looked to foundations as well. The Schumann Foundation recently granted $150,000 for a planetarium at Glenfield Middle School.

''We're not ready to play the role of Cassandra,'' says Dr. Robinson. ''We're not ready to cut back on what we've achieved in terms of services.''

Mrs. Casto is just as optimistic. ''If we have to, we'll cut back on a new calculator or computer,'' she says. ''But the program will go on. It's a philosophy, and it's going to stay.''

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