Ralph Opacic walks briskly across the campus of Los Alamitos High School, greeting students and teachers. Opacic, director of the Orange County High School of the Arts, a magnet program located on the campus, is eager to show off what his students are up to.
First stop is the piano lab. Sixteen students are in the middle of their lessons, yet the room is eerily silent. The pianos here are electronic, and the students and instructor listen to the music through headphones.
Across the county in Fullerton, technology has revolutionized education at Troy Tech, a science, math and technology magnet located on the campus of Troy High School. Take a tour with its director, Gee Gee Walker, and she'll show you classrooms filled with students hammering away at Pentium and 486 computers.
Opacic and Walker have never met, but both speak with overwhelming enthusiasm for their students and their programs.
Each can point to a premier example of how magnet schools work, but not everyone shares their enthusiasm.
While acknowledging the successes of the programs, critics say they also drain other schools of talented students and needed state funding. And they see the creation of pressurized environments in which only the best of the best succeed.
At the core of the Troy and OCHSA programs, though, are two things every school wants: adequate funding and exceptionally motivated students.
Two years after the defeat of Proposition 174, the statewide voucher initiative that hoped to use the open market to reform education, and three years before its proponents have promised to bring the issue to the voters again, OCHSA and Troy Tech are clearly taking care of themselves.
Of the 484 students attending OCHSA, about 350 come from outside the Los Alamitos Unified School District, and of the 980 students attending Troy Tech, 668 come from outside the Fullerton Joint Union School District.
"Up until recently, public education hasn't done a good job marketing all the good things that it's doing," says Opacic. "I think that the whole magnet concept is important for improving the image of public education."
"Magnet schools give students choices," Walker says confidently, "and it appears that we are becoming the school of choice."
There are many success stories among the students and graduates of the magnet schools.
Like Bret Egan. A graduate of OCHSA, Bret has spent almost as much time in his 17 years on the stage as in the classroom. "Godspell," "Oklahoma!," "Pajama Game," "On Golden Pond," "A Christmas Carol"--it was a rigorous routine, juggling classes and homework with performances.
And there's Elene Terry, a junior studying programming, trigonometry, American history, Spanish and chemistry and English at Troy Tech. Last year she participated in the national Science Olympiad, developing an expertise in the periodic table and experimental design.
Bret and Elene are like most students enrolled at OCHSA and Troy Tech, kids with lofty dreams and the discipline to match.
Of course it's meant sacrifice. Bret recalls nights he got out of performances at midnight and had three hours of homework ahead of him. A relationship with a girlfriend, his first true love, became a "course in time management."
"I'd ask myself what was important--spending time with someone I care about or . . . getting good grades, going to a good school, working hard," he says. "Sometimes in my heart I just longed to be lying on the sofa, watching TV, holding hands."
Elene's schedule last year was equally demanding. Some days she skipped lunch to practice her clarinet with band members and waited to get home to eat.
"My parents sometimes worry that I don't have much of a social life," she says.
Her mom, however, is less concerned than Elene knows. She feels that teen-age boys are intimidated by intelligent girls and is just glad that Elene has the opportunity of going to Troy Tech.
Los Alamitos High School and Troy High School look much like other high schools in Orange County built in the 1960s.
Set up hard against walled suburbs, the campuses' single-story concrete buildings sit at right angles to each other and are shaded by ragged pine trees and sycamores.
They look a little dingy today, but they must have sparkled when they were new and secondary education--rich on the California promise--was going to address the challenge of Sputnik and take teen-agers well beyond the easy orbit of the Earth.
OCHSA and Troy Tech are folded into these campuses. Students attending OCHSA take their regular morning classes at the high school, and in lieu of sports, take afternoon classes in classical and commercial dance, musical theater, technical theater, instrumental music or the visual arts.
At Troy Tech, students start their days at 7 a.m. Their schedules mix classes in the high school and classes in the Troy Tech "pathways"--math and science, business, programming and engineering. As seniors, they intern at places such as Rockwell, UCI and Cal State Fullerton.
Magnet schools, originally conceived in the late 1970s, were once a means of racial desegregation, using a specialized curriculum as an incentive to draw students from different schools to one campus. In the mid-1980s, the state offered special grants to schools that developed a specific curriculum.
Troy, which opened in 1982, got its start after winning a grant for $670,000 over three years for its science, math and technology curriculum, and OCHSA won $750,000 between 1987 and 1990 for its performing arts program.
Administrators at other schools became concerned about a loss of funding at their schools when students transferred to the magnet programs. The ADA (average daily attendance fund) paid to each school by the state currently is about $3,400 a year per student.
Today Troy Tech is funded mostly by the ADAs that come from inter-district transfers. Technology grants also help, as did a recent $35,000 grant from the state.
OCHSA, whose operating budget for this year is $950,000, is not only supported by ADAs, but also miscellaneous fund-raisers and the OCHSA Foundation, a nonprofit organization that raises about $300,000 a year from such corporations as Toyota and Rockwell.
When the statewide High School Task Force released its report in 1992 on high school reform, OCHSA and Troy Tech seemed ahead of their time.
Among the state's recommendations were job-skills training and the opportunity for students to specialize in a field of study by sophomore year.
But some see a downside to having students concentrate in specialty areas--which is implicit in the magnet programs--while they are still so young.
Dennis Evans is the associate director of education at UCI who spent 21 years as a principal at Corona del Mar and Newport Harbor High School.
Evans maintains that high school is too early for most students to start specializing. If you focus teen-agers in one direction, you're keeping them from looking at other important areas, he says.
"High school kids have no sense of temporality," says Evans. "The future is Friday night or maybe prom night. I don't think it's right to ask them to make decisions about their future at this age."
Evans also sees a dangerous parallel between the popularity of magnet programs and the voucher initiative. Both, he says, weaken the structure of public education.
The real challenge is to develop a strong and diverse curriculum.
"I'd rather have a school that gets kids interested in lifelong learning rather than a lifelong career," he says.
Jerome Shelton is one student who didn't return to OCHSA this year. He found the commute impossible from his home in Santa Ana, but he also didn't get along with some of his classmates.
"There are two groups of OCHSA students," he says. "There are the airheads and the real people. The airheads think they are the best people on campus. They're the jocks of the program."
And as jocks, he explains, they got all the roles, leaving him with the opportunity to cut classes.
"I did it a lot," he says. "Friends and I would go to coffee shops and the beach. Los Al was great because it's close to everything I wanted to do."
Dawn Erwin graduated from OCHSA in 1994. As a junior in musical theater and a senior in technical theater, she found too many students and too few openings. In technical theater, a program with 55 students, about 10 were "really involved," she says; the rest would sweep, mop up--or cut out early.
"In the beginning," she says, "when you first get into the program . . . you're told how wonderful you are, and you're made to feel special, but once you get started, it doesn't matter. The teachers have their favorites."
Coincidentally, Erwin transferred to OCHSA from Troy High School. According to her mother, if you are not a "techie," as students in Troy Tech are called, or in the International Baccalaureate program, you can "fall through the cracks." This, she suspects, happened to Dawn.
Why some students work as hard as they do while others are just as happy to be mall rats is a matter of speculation.
Janette Johnson, counseling coordinator with Newport Harbor High School, sees motivation as entirely individual. While Newport Harbor High School does not have a magnet program, Johnson sees teen-agers facing comparable pressure in the school's athletic programs.
"The difficulty [with assessing motivation] is that no one knows for sure if it's a child's desire or the parents'," says Johnson. "Most psychologists will confirm that a child's attitude is formulated at an early age. By the time they're teen-agers, motivation is generally not conscious."
Johnson prefers to see parents expose children to a variety of interests and then look for a spark to light up.
"Parents need to play a controlling role but with an open mind so they're not programming," she says. "They need to be alert to see how the child is responding, that the child is not forcing it."
Magnet schools, she maintains, have a place in our educational system because some kids--quite simply--just can't be deterred.
For two years, Heather Wilson commuted for more than an hour each way in order to attend Los Alamitos.
According to her father, Heather always seemed "a little tired" and was getting more sick than usual, reason enough--the family agreed--to send her to the local high school for her junior year.
At El Modena High School, she won the Imagination Celebration through the Orange County Performing Arts Center. She also made a film and won an award of distinction from the National Student Film Festival.
"We wanted her to slow down," her father remembers, "but she drove herself at the same pace as at OCHSA." Heather returned to graduate from OCHSA last year.
Another OCHSA graduate, Paul Green, brought his under-wraps drive with him when he transferred from Gahr High School in Cerritos to OCHSA for the last six months of high school. Gahr was "tough"--his shorthand for gangs; a friend was murdered during freshman year.
"OCHSA was the best thing I've done in my life," Green said. "I learned that I don't have to keep it a secret that I want to be on the Broadway stage. In public high school, that's not something to be proud of."
Student motivation notwithstanding, timing has had a lot to do with the success of OCHSA and Troy Tech. Developing comparable programs today would be difficult.
"We've witnessed a real decline in state funding for the arts," says Kevin Kruse, managing director of the School for the Performing Arts, a magnet program run by the Huntington Beach Union School District. "If OCHSA or Troy Tech were to start up now, I doubt seriously that they could get the level of support they currently have."
SPA was founded with $150,000 from the district in 1993.
While Kruse declines to disclose the program's operating budget, he says it isn't near the magnitude of OCHSA's. Nonetheless, he adds, SPA is growing in leaps and bounds.
"We are at the enviable point where we have kids clamoring to get in, and we can afford to be selective," he says.
La Habra High School also has a magnet program called the Heritage of the Americas. It features a humanities-based curriculum designed to foster an appreciation of North and South American cultures.
According to Ann Elms, assistance principal at La Habra High School, funding is always a concern. While the school got a strong financial start with the help of the state and a private foundation, no money has been received for the present school year.
"But the program is here to stay," Elms says without reservation. "It will be more difficult, but it will work out."
If capturing a teen-ager's curiosity and interest is the goal of curriculum development in high school, then magnet programs have a place in the educational system.
Listen to Opacic and Walker, and you'll realize that regardless of the funding or the student body, the benefit of OCHSA and Troy Tech go far beyond developing proficiency in the performing arts or in science, math and technology. "I believe an arts-based education, first and foremost, builds self-esteem," says Opacic. "It builds discipline, teaches time management and develops confidence."
"By focusing on science and technology," says Walker, "we're broadening and enhancing our students' abilities to work in a life of learning."
Counselor Janette Johnson believes these lessons are critical in human development.
"A lot of young people haven't the opportunity to experience their own personal successes," says Johnson.
"A child needs to experience success that is commensurate with their level of development. Success will give them confidence to explore and do more."