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.