JOHNS ISLAND -- Haut Gap Middle School enrolled 211 students last year, but only 23 of them were white.

This year, the predominantly black, high-poverty school has nearly twice as many white students, and the growth in diversity can be attributed to its new Advanced Studies Magnet program.

Students can earn at least five high school credits in courses such as algebra, geometry and global studies, and they can take academic electives, such as Charleston history, that aren't available in most other schools.

Five Charleston County schools opened partial magnet programs this year in an effort to boost student achievement and increase racial diversity. Poverty and low student achievement plague most of the five schools involved.

It's too early to tell whether the programs will result in higher test scores, but at least two of the programs, the Advanced Studies Magnet at Haut Gap and the Montessori program at Mitchell Elementary, have succeeded in attracting more white students to previously predominantly black schools.

School Superintendent Nancy McGinley created and spearheaded the partial magnet initiative, and her long-term vision is to create more of these programs in every area of the district. Partial magnet schools have a theme -- such as Montessori, arts-infused, or math and science -- and students from outside their attendance zones can apply for acceptance. Neighborhood students have a guaranteed spot at the school.

It's up to schools to decide whether the themed classes will be offered to a portion of the student body or to every student enrolled. The two schools that have seen a substantial improvementin racial diversity have separated their students in the magnet program from the rest of the student body and allowed them access only to its specialized classes, in essence segregating the program from the rest of the school with the exception of certain times, such as lunch. The other partial magnet schools have allowed the entire student body to take the themed classes, but they have seen less of an increase in racial diversity.

McGinley said she would like every student to be able to take advantage of a school's themed classes, and she called the programs at Haut Gap and Mitchell Elementary a starting point.

"Our goal is to have a ripple effect on the rest of the school," she said. "I'm not in favor of creating elite programs for a small number of kids. What I'm trying to do is bring about systemic changes that elevate all children."

She'd like to see at least three more partial magnet schools open by next school year and possibly more if she can find additional money. Each partial magnet received $6,000 for planning money, two extra teaching positions and $40,000.

A partial magnet

Haut Gap Principal Paul Padron, who's earned a reputation among local educators as an all-star, has been the driving force behind his school's Advanced Studies Magnet program.

He put together a team that surveyed the community, including families without children at Haut Gap, to find out what they wanted. Many indicated they would support a math and science themed school, but Padron decided to go a step further and create a program in which all subjects would be taught at high levels.

Armed with an ambitious plan, Padron began working on the most critical component of the partial magnet program: recruiting parents and convincing them to give a new, unproven initiative a try. He recognized that parents had opinions and fears about the school that he had to address. Many needed assurance that the school was a safe place and that teachers would demand high academic achievement.

He talked to parents at nearby elementary schools' PTA meetings, but he also ventured off the island to Stiles Point Elementary on James Island and St. Andrews School of Math and Science in West Ashley to promote his school's new program. He made school tours a priority; and when any parent stopped in to check out his school, he or another school staffer would take time to show them around the building.

Cheryl Levin Roberts was one of the white parents in the PTA audience at St. Andrews School of Math and Science listening to Padron make his pitch. Roberts lives on Johns Island but didn't enroll either of her sons in their neighborhood school because she feared they wouldn't be challenged.

Padron's presentation impressed her, particularly the offering of the unique academic electives and the promise of an advanced curriculum, especially in math.

She decided to visit Haut Gap Middle, and she felt good about what she saw. Still, she felt concerned about her son's safety and whether he would be pushed to excel. She felt like he'd been prepared well in math, and she didn't want him feeling bored.

It wasn't until the end of last school year that she decided to give the new program a try. She saw Padron's passion and vision for the school, and she said he made her believe in Haut Gap Middle. She wanted the partial magnet program to be successful, and she was willing to take a risk.

So far, she said she's been thrilled with the program. Her son is happy, and he comes home wanting to tell her about what he learned in school.

"That's pretty exciting for a mother," she said.

Padron credits parents for trusting the school with their children. Some of the 39 students in the program were in private schools last year, and others were zoned to attend middle schools on James Island this year.

"It took a lot of guts to make that first step," he said. "That's a tough choice."

Making it work

It's 7:45 a.m., but the early hour doesn't seem to make a difference for students in the Charleston history elective that's part of the school's Advanced Studies program. Students are sharply focused and their hands shoot upward in response to questions coming from their teacher, Jane Aldrich, an archivist and research consultant with the South Carolina Historical Society.

Aldrich is reviewing what the class learned the previous day when a guest speaker, the director of Charleston archives at the county library, taught the class about Charleston music in the late 1700s and early 1800s.

Students asked question after question, and Aldrich patiently answered each one. Their curiosity seemed difficult to satiate, but that's pretty typical for these children, Padron said.

"I wish we could offer this kind of class to all students," he said.

The school has two classes of students enrolled in the magnet program, and they take all of their classes together and remain separated from the rest of the student body. Students accepted to the program had to have a 3.0 average and score among the top 75 percent of their peers in reading and math. The program began this year with sixth-graders and will grow to include seventh- and eighth-graders during the next two years.

Eleven-year-old Arran Parker, a white James Island resident who attended Stiles Point Elementary last year, is one of the students in the program. He said he hadn't heard anything about Haut Gap Middle before enrolling there, and his classes are harder than they were last year. He likes the small class size and the academic electives because he says he feels like he's learning something.

On that day, Parker appeared to be learning alongside six black students, eight white students and two Hispanic students. Less visible are students' diverse economic backgrounds: 48 percent are considered high poverty.

Padron loves the diversity and said it's a reflection of the broader community. Students can learn from one another, and they need to learn how to work with people from different backgrounds, he said.

Padron feels confident that students in the Advanced Studies program will have higher test scores, and the remainder of the school's students will benefit from that program. The magnet class teachers are using similar strategies and activities in their non-magnet classes, and that will increase the instructional level and rigor of those lessons, he said. He's determined to see strong test results for both magnet and non-magnet students, which will help with student recruitment for the future.

"The results must show," he said.

BY THE NUMBERS

The following is a racial breakdown of the students enrolled in Charleston County's five new partial magnet schools:

• Entire school participates in its partial magnet program. • The school enrolled 42 students from outside its attendance zone; 35 were black, five were Hispanic and two were white. • Last year, the school had 340 black students, 12 Hispanic and two white students. • This year, the school has 374 black students, 13 Hispanic and two white students.

• Program is available to a small group of students, not the entire school. • The school enrolled 39 students in the advanced studies program; 17 were black, 17 were white; four were Hispanic and one was another race. • Last year, the school had 158 black students, 29 Hispanic students, 23 white students and one student of another race. • This year, the school has 168 black students, 42 Hispanic students, 41 white students and one student of another race.

• Entire school participates in its partial magnet program. • The school enrolled 33 students for outside its attendance zone; 11 were black, 18 were white, one was Hispanic and three were of other races. • Last year, the school had 137 black students, 15 Hispanic students, 262 white students and five students of other races. • This year, the school has 139 black students, 14 Hispanic students, 296 white students and five students of other races.

• Entire school participates in its partial magnet program. • The school enrolled 33 students from outside its attendance zone; 28 were black, two were white, one was Hispanic and two were other races. • Last year, the school had 290 black students and 10 white students. • This year, the school has 369 black students, two Hispanic students, six white students and three students of other races.

• Entire school participates in its math and science program; the school offers a separate Montessori program to a small group of students. • For its math and science program, the school enrolled 37 students from outside its attendance zone; 32 were black, two were white, two were Hispanic and one was another race. • For its Montessori program, the school enrolled 36 students; 18 were black, 16 were white and two were other races. • Last year, the school had 345 black students, one Hispanic student and one student of another race. • This year, the school has 380 black students, three Hispanic students, 23 white students and one student of another race.