For the past four years, my niece has been fortunate enough to participate in Aiken County’s GATEWAY Program. The first two years, her primary focus was drama. The past two years, I’ve witnessed her metamorphosis into an anointed dancer. Just like with my niece, the innate skills of about 170 elementary, middle and high school students were catapulted to a new level of accomplishment thanks to this awesome program known as GATEWAY.

The acGATEWAY program is an acronym for Aiken County’s Gifted and Talented Education with Artistic Youth. With the abundance of talent our children possess, the dedication of qualified and innovative teachers in Aiken County, and the unique concentration of engineers, scientists, and those gifted in the fine or performing arts, I am convinced the time has come for Aiken County to establish one or more magnet schools in our district.

A magnet school is defined as a “public school offering special instruction unavailable elsewhere and designed to attract a diverse student body.”

Having emerged in the 1960s in an effort to deal with racial segregation in public schools, magnet schools have evolved into schools characterized by the bringing together of students commonly interested in a certain curriculum, discipline, or area of study (i.e. science, technology, engineering and math; Fine or the performing arts). For many school districts, magnet schools provide one solution to the ubiquitous problems of high school dropouts and unsatisfactory academic performance.

As also evidenced by the remarkable diversity among students in the acGATEWAY program, students in magnet schools excel despite their ethnicity or socioeconomic status. Capital Prep Magnet School, a magnet high school in Hartford, Conn., made national news through its success under principal and now CNN Education Contributor Steve Perry.

The school is housed in “one of the nation’s poorest performing school districts,” according to Perry.

Instead of forging an attack for the demise of public schools, I support methods to restructure the status quo approach to educating our children to reach those deemed unreachable and turn the tide of students who may be disengaged and uninterested with the typical school environment.

Magnet schools may be a viable school improvement option for the Aiken County Consolidated School District.

It would be nice to one day review the Aiken County report card and see the “number of magnet schools” change to any number above zero. Magnet schools may be just the environment needed to harness the energy and creativity of those administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents who yearn for a captivating balance of public and private school characteristics in one homogeneous learning center.

Just take a look at my “Education Matters” television broadcast Episode No. 101 where we highlight the acGATEWAY program (

I heard it straight from the horses’ mouths – students who utter “I didn’t want school to end.”

“Through this program, I get to be myself because I’m surrounded with like-minded students who want to be here.”

Parents who said, “I didn’t have to wake my child up. My child woke me up, because he was excited to get to GATEWAY.”

Really, I’m not making this up. It is actually true.

In only four or five weeks during the summer, retiring GATEWAY Director Joe Laorenza says the students learn in one day what equates to an entire week if they were in a regular school commensurate to teaching these skills of visual arts, drama, dance, music and creative writing.

It’s not just the students who get excited about the program. Every teacher eagerly looks forward to spending five weeks of their summer with the students – for they know every child brings his “A game” and is committed to give it his all. Isn’t that the way school should be for every child … and yes, even for every teacher?

After watching just 10 minutes of a showcase, you, too, will ponder the question of why don’t we have magnet schools in Aiken County that could potentially give hundreds of students the opportunity to excel every year in a specialized environment – instead of less than 200 during a summer.

If magnet schools can work for other school districts, I believe they can also work in Aiken.

Donna Moore Wesby is an Aiken County school board member and the host of “Education Matters with Donna Moore Wesby” on ASTV channel 95.