San Antonio’s largest school district is rolling out new magnet programs for its students as charter schools continue to open within district boundaries and specialized programs sprout across the city.

This fall, Northside Independent School District debuted its first new high school magnet program in 10 years. Next school year, Jones Middle School will be the site of the district’s first middle school magnet program centered on science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, curriculum. In future years, the district plans to open more magnet programs at the middle school level.

The moves are partly in response to more students choosing to attend charter schools, some of which offer specialized curriculums. Northside’s enrollment dipped last year, with 9,453 students electing to attend a different traditional public school district or charter, after rising from 101,549 students in 2013-14 to 106,086 in 2017-18.

Charter schools Basis Texas and IDEA Public Schools drew the largest numbers of students choosing to enroll elsewhere. School districts with special schools open to out-of-district students also drew Northside families. San Antonio ISD counted close to 600 Northside students in their enrollment figures in 2018-19.

Northside’s oldest magnet high school, Health Careers High School, opened in 1984. Now, Northside is poised to open a number of new special programs.

“It’s all with the purpose of just trying to give students choice,” said Xavier Maldonado, who is designing the new Jones magnet program. “It’s a recognition that we are trying to capture kids’ interests at an early and earlier age.”

Maldonado is using the 2019-20 school year to plan the magnet program and hopes the curriculum will align well with the already existing John Jay High School Science and Engineering Academy.

As the district pilots new STEM labs at Northside elementary schools, the Jones Middle School magnet program will provide STEM curriculum in middle school years. A student who is passionate about STEM could focus their studies in that area from elementary through high school. John Jay Science and Engineering Academy students will serve as mentors to the new middle schoolers to make the transition easier.

Applications will be open from mid-November to January, Maldonado said. The magnet program will enroll 140 students. Students from outside the district can apply, but Northside students will be given priority.

Students who successfully complete the middle school program will be automatically accepted into the John Jay Science and Engineering Academy.

Deonna Dean, the district’s assistant superintendent for middle school instruction, said Northside plans to expand specialized curriculum for younger students but doesn’t have many details on what the programs will focus on or where they will be located.

“Middle school magnets in particular provide students a different level of choice and opportunity to go really deep in things that light their fire,” Dean said. “It provides us some agility for kids and parents that don’t currently exist at a deep level within our middle school programming.”

The ideal new programs would capture high student interest, be aligned to high school endorsements and pathways, and factor in workforce readiness data, Dean said. Northside wants to make sure everything goes smoothly at Jones before rolling out other programs. The district plans to incorporate feedback from Jones students and families into future program openings.

Northside ISD got some practice this fall in opening a new magnet program. For the first time in the last decade, the district opened a new specialized high school program, the John Marshall Law and Medical Services Magnet School.

The John Marshall Law and Medical Services Magnet School started with a freshman class of close to 160 students this fall.

Marshall Law & Medical Services Magnet High School students and members of the principal’s cabinet (from right) Ariana Saucedo, 14; Cynthia Hausen, 14; and Ainsley Price, 14, welcome prospective students and their parents to an open house on Nov. 4.

Students can study medical services, which includes training for EMT, physical therapy, mental health, and licensed vocational nursing. They also can study law enforcement, law, and legal services, which includes classes on public safety, court systems, and legal research and writing. The third pathway is governance and public administration, which covers political science, planning and governance, and diplomacy.

Marshall High School already operated popular law enforcement and medical programs, which led the school’s principal and district administrators to consider building on the existing success, Principal Margaret Bray said.

The new program adds to the pool of magnet programs in Northside, becoming the sixth option for district students.

“It gives them more voice and choice in their education,” Bray said of magnet programs. “That voice and choice is so important for our young people and keeps them connected not only to their academics, but also their extracurriculars and the community at large.”

Bray will measure the success of the program by how many students elect to return next fall and the level of interest shown by current eighth-graders.

Emily Donaldson reports on education for the San Antonio Report.