My son actually goes to a magnet elementary school. It’s our district’s fine arts magnet, and there are also a “classical” magnet and a math, science and technology magnet.
In practical terms, it means that the school has an emphasis on teaching fine arts- that’s where they spend whatever time they have that’s not already mandated by the district or state on specific subjects. I don’t really get the impression that there’s that much specialized magnet stuff going on in terms of the curriculum.
More pertinently, the school’s status as a magnet is also a response to a desegregation suit from the early 1970s. By making it a magnet and attracting white and hispanic students district-wide, they could achieve the goal of desgregating the school without having to draw very peculiar zoning boundaries to accomplish the same goal. As it stands today, kids zoned to the school get in automatically, but kids not zoned to it have to apply for the magnet program.
What this produces is a really strange mix of VERY highly motivated white and hispanic parents (the voluntary magnet parents), and a surprisingly apathetic local black population. I’m part of the school PTA’s dad’s club, and even though the school is 40% black, there is ONE black guy who shows up to meetings, and he’s the husband of the PTA president.
This follows through into the academic side of things- the school has a tightrope to walk- on one hand, you have the highly prepared children of motivated, educated parents, and on the other, you have the unprepared children of apathetic, uneducated parents. They do their best, but I think that when resources or time are scarce, they default to allocating to the unprepared kids to bring them up to level, rather than stretching the prepared kids.
In our case, we didn’t really have good alternate choices- our local school is chock full of even poorer apartment kids, who are a mix of immigrants and extremely low-income black kids. ISTR that something like 30 languages are spoken at our local elementary. So our feeling was that an academically oriented and gifted white kid was not likely to have his needs met in such an environment, diverse as it may be. And the next school over is the opposite- it’s like the school for affluent stepford wives/frat boy husbands. Completely not diverse racially or socioeconomically (it’s all white and high income), very cliquish among the parents (or so we hear from other people we know whose children go there), and generally kind of an obnoxious place by my lights. So we turned to the magnet elementaries as the best alternative to both of those situations.
So far, it seems to be working pretty well for us- our son’s doing well and making friends.