Kansas City is one of a number of cities across the United States that have installed a magnet-school system in the past few years.

Magnet schools, which started in the late 1960s as a voluntary means of desegregating schools by attracting white students, became a popular way to reduce racial isolation in the 1970s. Between 1979 and 1985, however, the growth of magnet schools all but stopped.

After 1979, "I thought that everyone who was going to [switch to magnets] had done it," says Donald R. Waldrip, executive director of Magnet Schools of America at the University of Houston.

But about seven years ago, after the federal government approved legislation to support a magnet-schools-assistance grant, "A lot of people became interested," Mr. Waldrip says. "They've been just growing and growing since then." He counts about 3,000 magnet schools today. Jacksonville, Fla., Greenville, S.C., and Albuquerque, N.M., are cities that have started magnet schools in the past few years.

Walter Marks, superintendent of the Kansas City, Mo., School District, has installed several magnet-school systems in other parts of the US, including one in the Richmond, Calif., school district, which went bankrupt last year. Many blamed him for overspending funds. "The magnet schools worked," says Marks, "We just couldn't pay for it."

While magnet schools first became popular as a way to desegregate, "Now they're [also] in for choice and educational purposes," he says.

Some magnet schools are better than others, Waldrip says, but many districts turn to them because they work.

"The themes are grabbers. They are the things that entice parents and children to select them. After students get there they get a well-rounded education," he says.

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