Magnet Schools: A Retrospective Case Study of Segregation

By Gersti-Pepin, Cynthia | High School Journal, February-March 2002 | Go to article overview
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Magnet Schools: A Retrospective Case Study of Segregation

Gersti-Pepin, Cynthia, High School Journal

Often lost in the discourse regarding educational policy-making and implementation are the micropolitical experiences of the individuals who are most affected by policy: students. Policymakers often develop policy under the guise of making schools better, but in effect they often lose sight of insuring that all students receive a good education regardless of gender, race, or class distinctions. In the quest to satisfy constituents and competing value systems, the possible negative effects of policies on students are often ignored.

Most policymaking relies on traditional assumptions of a meritocratic system, that implicitly supports the hierarchical structure of society (Gakes & Lipton, 1999). Since there is only so much room at the top, a certain number of students are doomed, or expected, to fail. Within the bureaucratic structure of educational systems, important goals such as providing a quality education for all children are ignored, or forgotten about, in order to preserve the existing hierarchy. As Ferguson (1984) posits. "The strict hierarchical arrangement of roles within bureaucracies, and the need to maintain this hierarchy in order to achieve predictability and control, exacerbates the problem of goal displacement and inflexibility." (p. 22)

This analysis will approach the implementation of policy from a unique perspective; viewing it in relation to the cultural experiences of students. Utilizing a retrospective case study approach to examine desegregation policy, a specific student culture within a high school magnet school will be studied at the micro political level. In order to do) this, I will draw upon my life experiences as a student at Northeast High School (NHS) in Oklahoma City during the period of 1981-1985.

By critically examining the cultural experiences of students who are experiencing the effects of desegregation policy, I hope to expose how the micropolitics of NHS's magnet program supported inequitable distributions of power and resources and reinforced cultural assumptions concerning racism and classism.


My reasons for taking this approach are due to a dearth of critical analysis of policy implementation from the perspective of students, who are often neglected voices in the policy-making process (Anderson & Herr, 1993). This paper is grounded in feminist theory and critical theory. My retrospective case study approach will rest on the feminist belief "that an emphasis on the everyday experiences of women and the need for the researcher to locate herself in terms of her own subjectivity is fundamental to a feminist methodology," and further that, "... this methodology admits and employs other resources such as intuition, emotions, and feelings both in ourselves and in those we want to investigate" (Weiler, 1988, p. 63). My aim in reflecting on my high school experience is heuristic. As Merriam (1998) suggests, case studies provide a way to focus research on a defined topic in order to "... illuminate the reader's understanding of the phenomenon under study." (p. 30).

My approach will borrow heavily from Metz's (1988) assertion that societal inequities can be reinforced by magnet programs that create two separate schools; one resource-rich and prestigious program for the magnet school students and one less respected program for the students not in the magnet program. Metz suggests that these distinctions can have a negative effect on teachers who teach the indigenous group of students. Building upon Metz's (1988) work I will use my personal experience to examine culture as an influence on students, instead of teachers, within a magnet school. Specifically, my analysis will operate under Metz's (1988) assertion that:

   Cultural understandings are tacit: They are rarely articulated as abstract
   propositions. They are elements of common sense so well known by persons
   sharing the culture that sensible adults have no need to mention them. 

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