FORT JACKSON, S.C. -- Last week NASA announced its Kepler space telescope detected five new planets beyond our solar system. Scientists predict within the next five years they'll discover planets capable of supporting life. Mark Smagner, post range operations specialist, said he wouldn't be surprised if his own son, Brad, discovered an exoplanet or some remote galaxy at some point in the near future.

"Brad takes every cardboard item he can find and builds elaborate rockets with scopes and other instruments to explore space," Smagner said. "At such an early age, he's already gotten a head start at launching a career as an astronaut."

That passion for exploration is why Smagner and his wife decided to enroll Brad, 8, in the NASA Explorer School at Forest Lake Elementary School in Columbia, he said.

The NASA Explorer School incorporates NASA content and programs into science, technology and mathematics, and is one of the 30 magnet programs offered to students living in Richland School District Two. Magnets are available to students living at Fort Jackson beginning in sixth grade.

Richland Two's magnet programs integrate in their curriculum specific themes, such as science and the performing arts, allowing students to delve into areas that interest them, and work with students and teachers with similar talents and strengths. The purposes of magnet programs, according to the district Web site, include encouraging creativity, maintaining high standards, and creating an awareness of career opportunities relative to the fields of study in which students may be interested.

"All of the magnet programs in this district are excellent," said Sheila Porter, a science teacher at Spring Valley High School, who substituted at some of the district's magnet programs last year. Porter said she witnessed the gains students made as they participated in the specialized programs.

"Some of the magnets offer the most rigorous programs in the district," she said. "Some are very difficult, with hours of homework, and the students are expected to perform to standards the program requires. But because they have smaller class sizes and most of the kids are more motivated to focus on their academics, they are usually better behaved."

Porter's daughter, Sarah, 7, participates in the Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics School, or STEMS, at North Springs Elementary School in Columbia. Since starting the magnet program in August, Sarah has advanced well above her grade level in a lot of areas, Porter said.

"Sarah is reading about two grade levels above her grade," she said. "She's doing math at least a level higher, if not two. I wouldn't be surprised if she's two levels higher in math by the end of the year."

Porter said she believes Sarah's advances are due to the hands-on, project-based curricula of the STEMS program.

Expanded choice programs
Roger Wiley, Richland Two's registrar, said families, much like the Porters, choose to apply for magnet programs because they are attracted to qualities of the specialized programs. Families who desire to have their children attend specific schools for other reasons, such as proximity to work and child care, may apply through the Expanded Choice program.

"This program offers parents and students residing in Richland District Two the opportunity to request permission to attend a school other than the school for which they are zoned," Wiley said.

Expanded Choice programs are available to students living at Fort Jackson, beginning in seventh grade.

Andree Hubbard and her husband, Capt. Joseph Hubbard, case manager at the Warrior Transition Unit of the Moncrief Army Community Hospital, zoned for an elementary school that does not offer a Child Development Center. For that reason, their daughter Ashley, 6, attended a CDC at Sandlapper Elementary last year. This year, they decided to take advantage of the Expanded Choice program to enroll Ashley in Sandlapper's kindergarten class.

"Ashley was already familiar with her friends and the teachers at Sandlapper, so I thought it would be better for her to go there, rather than make her to go to a new school where she would have to make new friends and have new teachers," said Hubbard. "I thought she would have trouble adjusting."

Parents who exercise any of Richland Two's choices or transfers must provide transportation for their children to and from school.
Parents may apply electronically now until Jan. 29 for the Expanded Choice and magnet programs. Selection is by random lottery.

Military families who move here after the choice deadline may apply to any of the Expanded Choice schools that are not over capacity, an accommodation not afforded to non-military residents, Wiley said.

Application forms are available at For more information, call 738-3314.