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East Aurora magnet school open house attracts hundreds

Updated: March 13, 2013 6:11AM

Getting into the Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy is almost like winning a lottery, or better.

Hundreds of parents trenched through snow and slush on a school night recently — with young children in tow — hoping their child will get admitted into the academy for the 2013-2014 school year.

Fred Rodgers Magnet Academy principal Angela Rowley addressed 250 people during an information session at East Aurora High, while on the other side of the multi-purpose room were another 250 mothers and fathers hearing a duplicate presentation in Spanish.

The East Aurora magnet program, open to third- to 12th graders, was originally piloted in 2008 for students who are academically talented and interested in math, science and technology.

Rowley had completed an explanation of the text-free environment and curriculum, as well as a demonstration of the online application process, when she said all qualified applicants are placed into a public lottery for selection in order to give each student the same opportunity.

The public lottery will be held April 11.

Melanie Doherty said her two daughters, who will be in the third and fourth grades next year, were ecstatic when the principal announced each student will receive a laptop for school and homework. The district secured private funding for the computers.

“Their eyes opened wide,” Doherty said. “Our girls are very tech savvy. I didn’t touch a computer until the 6th grade — we want our children to have every academic opportunity available to them,” Doherty said.

Doherty said her 9-year old daughter qualified last year, but didn’t get chosen in the lottery. “I was so disappointed that I cried,” the mother said. “To actually make it into the academy may not be like winning a jackpot of money, but it is huge — it is our children’s future,” Doherty said.

Rowley acknowledged the excitement and disappointment associated with those placed on a wait list. “For parents it is an almost life-changing opportunity for their child to dig in, explore and be pushed beyond standard curriculum,” Rowley said.

Rowley, recruited from the prestigious Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora to begin the planning process for the academy more than a decade ago, said the program was piloted and gradually expanded to make sure it was not just another school.

The principal said enrollment over the past two years has been at capacity with 25 students from each grade level, but with the purchase of the Fred Rodgers Community Center building, next year’s magnet program will triple in size with 75 students from grades 3rd through 8th. The number of high school students will remain unchanged and expand as the lower grades advance through the program.

Once selected, students remain in the magnet program as long as they continue to meet the qualifications.

East Aurora Board president Annette Johnson said attendance for the academy’s open house spoke volumes for the interest parents have in the program. “When we actually draw the lottery, it is actually as though parents win the lottery,” Johnson said.

“We have studied magnet academy programs in other school districts, and ours will be unique because it will be giving every student a laptop for school and homework. Some of our families do not have a computer, so it will not only change their child’s life, but the whole family,” Johnson said.

Johnson said the pilot was so successful the district decided to expand the program and look for a building. The East Aurora District purchased the building at Root Street and College Avenue last summer from the city of Aurora.

The building’s life has evolved from the old Madonna High School of the 1920s-1930s and the old Aurora Central Catholic High School until 1997 when the city purchased the building and used it for a community center.

While the fourth floor was reserved for the academy’s 6th to 8th grade students, 3rd through 5th graders were at O’Donnell Elementary. Next year will be the first time all 3rd to 8th graders will attend the academy together. The 9th to 12th grades will remain at East Aurora High School.

“It has been a vision of the district to give our students an opportunity to excel in math, science and technology. We have bright students in our district and when we piloted the program, the results were so great and the community was so supportive we had to move forward,” Johnson said.

Johnson said aside from academic excellence for individual students, the academy’s test results will be part of the child’s home school and the new location will alleviate some of the over-crowding in classes.

“It is 100 percent 21st century learning — the curriculum of the future probably will not have students learning from textbooks,” Johnson said.

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