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Develop a Viable Theme and Mission
If a magnet school is the means, or the vehicle, by which a district reaches its goals, the specialized theme of a magnet school is what attracts people to get on board in the first place. In choosing an attractive theme, research on model programs in other parts of the country may help to generate or narrow down options, but final decisions should be shaped by an assessment of the local context.
District leaders may select magnet themes based on their existing knowledge of resources and interest. Sometimes, available community resources are so compelling that they offer an obvious local option. For example, Normal Park's proximity to popular institutions like the Regional History Museum, the African-American Museum, and Tennessee Aquarium, made a museum theme a natural choice. It also paved the way for the school to leverage partnerships with well-established public institutions already focused on outreach and education.
In other cases, the research on community interests and needs drives theme selection so that resources are specifically garnered to make it work. When federal MSAP funds were awarded to Nevada's Clark County, then-associate superintendent Kay Carl suspected that a mathematics and science theme would be attractive to both suburban and urban constituents. The curriculum content implied rigorous academics as well as preparation for prestigious careers. The theme was also concrete enough to explain to the general public. District staff used the appeal of the theme to drive Hoggard's magnet program and sought partnerships with local colleges and science-related institutions to support its teacher professional development.
Starting with the right magnet theme is important because it serves as the primary attraction for students and families. In some districts, the process of choosing a viable theme requires being flexible and adjusting research plans based on community feedback. Raymond Academy, part of the Aldine system in northeast Houston, was originally conceived to be a physical education magnet that would draw African-American families to a primarily white and Hispanic neighborhood. But when district staff conducted a survey, parent responses revealed overwhelming support for mathematics and science programs, fields that would provide children with an edge in the local oil-driven economy. Aldine staff used this information to launch Raymond Academy as an engineering magnet, and they designed it as part of a K-12 vertical strand to capture family interest throughout a student's entire career in the system.
While a theme is intended to unify diverse stakeholders through a common interest, communicating a clear mission can help increase engagement, motivation, and coherence. Diverse contexts influence how district leaders choose a school's magnet theme, but the real work lies in fashioning a compelling program that clearly connects the theme to student success. Developing a school mission that integrates the theme with the goal of universal academic achievement can provide staff with the rationale for carrying out the school's approach to educating its diverse student population. As one teacher noted, "We all know why we're here."
Staff at A.B. Combs believe in their mission to develop leaders, one child at a time, says principal Muriel Summers. It provides them with what she calls the "constancy of purpose" needed for translating their leadership and character development theme into a cohesive program that now boasts 95 percent proficiency rates. As noted earlier, prior to its theme conversion, Combs had been an extended-day magnet whose reform efforts had resulted in rising test scores that earned it national recognition from the U.S. Department of Education's National Blue Ribbon School program. But, as Summers recalls, there had been no focus on the reform efforts, and, she says, the gains in student performance merely reflected a series of "expensive programs" and "random acts of improvement" that she believed would eventually stagnate. Today, Summers reports, the Combs community embraces a shared mission that drives its leadership magnet theme, providing staff with what she refers to as a "compass" for "who we want to be and how we are going to get there." Along the school's inside walls, a diagram details the integration of each component of the school program into its leadership model. Next to it, a Core Values chart articulates the school's approach to implementing the mission and vision.
A. B. Combs staff have used a lotus diagram (see fig. 1 on p. 14) to chart the school's core values as they relate both to Combs' mission statement and to the seven habits of highly effective people.* Serving as the foundation of the school's leadership model, the habits and the mission are at the center of the diagram. Around the center, or heart, of the lotus, in this figure, are excerpted some of the school's value statements.
In some magnet schools, a focused mission naturally emerges from the theme's original impetus and rationale. In San Jose, Calif., teachers dissatisfied with the traditional bilingual program came together to help the school district pilot an innovative dual immersion magnet program at River Glen. Founding principal Rosa Molina says she speaks for her staff as well when she says, "I truly believe in the ability of children to master two languages and that you don't have to lose one language to learn the other." This conviction underlies the school's creation and informs its mission to produce bilingual, biliterate students who become comfortable with diverse cultures and people as they learn to celebrate their own distinctive qualities (see fig. 2 on p. 15).
In each of the profiled schools, the mission seems to serve as a positive, energizing force that engages a school community. It also provides purpose, direction, and clarity to program development. Whether stated formally in a handbook or simply echoed around the school building with posters and exhibits, the mission aims to unify students, families, and staff, and it serves as a foundation for building a cohesive, academic program.
*As identified by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.