SIOUX CITY | Twenty kindergartners stood on an alphabet-themed rug on a Tuesday afternoon trying to form a triangle with a stretchy, multi-colored band of fabric.
"You have to go diagonal," Teddy Rice, dressed in a Spiderman t-shirt, instructed a boy wearing navy blue near one of the triangle's vertices.
After helping to reposition several more of his classmates, teacher Kristina Mozak asked Teddy, "Is it looking more like a triangle?"
"Yeah," the six-year-old conceded.
Just moments before the activity, Teddy and his classmates were contorting their bodies into lines and shapes during the arts integrated math lesson at Hunt Elementary School, which follows the North Carolina Arts Council's A+ (Arts Plus) Schools Program.
Teddy, who first demonstrated interest in playing the violin after attending a concert shortly before his second birthday, transferred from the elementary school in his Leeds neighborhood to the Hunt specialty school, which weaves dance, drama, music and visual art into the curriculum, before the start of the 2017-2018 school year.
"He's doing great. He's coming back and asking questions," Lucas Rice said of his son, who began playing the violin at age 3, enjoys building sculptures from items found in his family's recycling bin and is the lone boy in his dance class. "He certainly seems like he's grasping the material well."
Specialty schools, more commonly known as magnet schools, are fairly new to the Sioux City Community School District. Five of the district's 11 elementary schools are now specialty schools. In addition to Hunt, they are: Morningside, a science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) school; Irving, a dual language school; Spalding Park, an environmental sciences school; and Loess Hills, a computer programming school.
Except for Loess Hills, the district's specialty schools closely follow the national magnet schools model.
Enrollment figures suggest the Sioux City schools are accomplishing their intended purpose.
Roughly 43 percent of students who transferred from one elementary to another within the district in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 school years, moved to a specialty school, according to a Journal analysis of district data.
Between the 2015-16 and 2016-17 academic year, total transfers to the five schools jumped about 52 percent, from 251 to 383. The specialty schools accounted for about 42 percent of the district's overall 900 in-district transfers to elementary schools last year.
Loess Hills led the way among the five specialty schools, receiving 170 transfer students during the two-year period, while Hunt received the fewest number of transfers, 58. Of the specialty schools, Morningside saw the largest increase in transfer students, 55, between 2015-16 and 2016-17.
DeVos strong proponent
On its website, Magnet Schools of America (MSA), a national nonprofit professional education association, touts magnet schools as the "single largest form of public school choice."
According to MSA, 4,340 magnet schools, which focus on themes such STEM, fine and performing arts, career and technical education and world languages, educate more than 3.5 million students of various socioeconomic backgrounds, races and academic achievement levels. The association says the schools exceed state standards in many cases.
U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a strong proponent of school choice, has praised magnet schools for their success and commitment to quality. But this specialized approach to education has also come under fire from critics, who note that popular magnet schools, some of which use test scores or a lottery system to admit students, are reserved for the best and brightest. A longer commute to and from school for students and a narrow curriculum are other rebukes lobbed by opponents.
Sioux City Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district saw rallying around specialty concepts for instructional delivery as a way to teach the core subjects in an engaging manner, while helping older buildings like Hunt, which became a specialty school in 2015, retain students as new school buildings opened.
"We're not doing that program at (Hunt) to make more ballerinas, rock stars and opera singers. We're doing it because the naturally engaging nature of the arts are a great way to learn math, science, social studies and language arts," said Gausman, who emphasized that students attending the district's regular elementary schools are receiving the same quality education as their peers in specialty schools.
Magnet school resurgence
Magnet schools emerged in the 1970s as a way to desegregate U.S. public schools by offering specialized courses.
Beth Van Meeteren, director of the Regents' Center for Early Developmental Education located on the University of Northern Iowa's campus, said magnet schools have grown in number in the wake of the No Child Left Behind Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2002.
The Act required all public school students in grades 3-8 to be tested annually in reading and math. As a result, some districts stripped down art and music instruction to spend classroom time drilling students on reading and math.
"This testing takes up a lot of teachers' time, because some kids need to be tested every single week. Lots of things get cast aside for that to happen," Van Meeteren said.
Van Meeteren speculates that some districts might be using the specialty school model as a way to show parents, some of whom may be considering home or private schooling, that their child can receive a "holistic education" in the public school system.
Lucas Rice, a priest at St. Thomas Orthodox Church, said he and his wife, Nicole, a nurse who majored in vocal performance, considered homeschooling Teddy before finding out about Hunt's special curriculum on the district's website.
After researching the Arts Plus model on the Internet and touring Hunt, the Rices were convinced that their son would benefit from such instruction. They filled out a form, turned it in and Teddy's transfer was approved.
If space is available at a particular school, the district allows students to transfer. There are currently no academic admission standards that students need to meet to gain admission.
Leslie Schrier, a University of Iowa College of Education associate professor with experience in dual language magnet schools in Columbus, Ohio, said magnet schools can create a "tricky" enrollment situation for a school district. She said magnet schools became so popular in Columbus that a lottery system was established to ensure students were fairly admitted.
According to Schrier, further complications with magnet schools arise when students move from elementary school to middle school. If the district's middle schools aren't equipped to help students advance further in a particular area of study, she said the students become "highly frustrated." She said magnet schools across the country, particularly those specializing in dual language, have closed as a result.
"It's just an awful situation because they've developed the students to a certain level. If (the students) are not allowed to continue on, it just dies," she said.
Gausman said nearly all of the district's elementary specialty concepts "blend very well" into the middle schools' STEM exploratory programs. He also noted that the district has taken steps to continue the dual language program from Irving Elementary to North Middle and North High schools.
Innovative learning opportunities
Foram Gor said her 10-year-old son, Nirmai, and six-year-old daughter, Jaini, transferred from Nodland/Sunnyside Elementary School to Morningside's specialty school because she felt they needed to be challenged to "think out of the box."
Gor said her children enjoy the creative, hands-on learning environment that the STEM school offers.
"Not a single day do I have to tell them, 'It's a school day,' and they say, 'No,'" she said. "They're looking forward to going because they learn so much in school."
On a Monday afternoon, first-graders at Morningside sang a song about Wanda the Witch to the tune of "She'll be Coming Around the Mountain." Then, teacher Becky Gaul asked the students to engineer animals for the character to brew in her kettle.
Jaini Gor imagined a jaguar, which she drew on a piece of paper and carefully colored with orange and black crayons. She then used that plan to construct the animal from marshmallows and a chocolate chip granola bar.
"It's going to be so good," she beamed, before flipping over her drawing and writing a sentence about the jaguar.
Gaul, who utilizes an engineering process in her classroom, said she's constantly posing questions to get her students to think at a higher level.
"It's just a plan of action that they go through. They're always questioning and trying to plan and trying to improve," she said.
Foram Gor said she thinks the district needs more specialty schools like Morningside so all of the district's children can take advantage of the innovative learning opportunities that her children have.
"Look at your child. They have a special ability. Give them a platform to explore it," she said.