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Maintain the Theme With Integrity
An effective magnet school theme is evident throughout the curriculum and as a visible element through the entire building. As one district staff member explains, themes that are successfully implemented are those that are easily seen, easily understood, and easily articulated. They do not leave prospective parents asking such questions as: "So can you explain that again? What is the theme exactly?" Some schools communicate the theme, in part, by physically transforming the school building. The giant outdoor sculptures and exhibit-like hallways at Normal Park suggest a children's museum more than a school; the zoo-like life science lab and planetarium signal what Hoggard staff call their "hands-on, minds-on" math and science theme; walls of musical instruments, a black box theater, and the ample studio space immediately indicate FAIR's arts theme. At FAIR, the robust and vibrant performing arts theme goes far beyond a smattering of arts activities where students are simply handed scissors, construction paper, and glue. In a media arts lab, seventh-graders work independently, editing self-directed films, writing artist's statements, creating animation video, and developing black-and-white prints.
At some schools, cohesiveness of the themed curriculum is furthered by something as seemingly simple as the use of common terminology and concepts across content areas and grade levels. At Raymond, for example, teachers across the grades speak to their students about creativity, design, suppositions, and imagination, identifying them as the school's core strands of critical thinking used in scientific problem solving. Throughout the grade levels, students are asked to apply these skills in age-appropriate curriculum units that build on previous years' lessons. A first-grade teacher introduces civil engineering concepts by discussing "wolf-proofing" homes in a read-aloud of The Three Little Pigs, while second-graders deepen their understanding of structural design through a study of historical landmarks that are engineering marvels. By fourth grade, students are demonstrating Raymond's core strands of critical thinking by drawing proportionately scaled homes, building replicas of monuments, and designing bridges. By using a common framework for teaching math and science and aligning their use of core terms and concepts, teachers at Raymond have created a cohesive and compelling curriculum.
As a curriculum moves from design to implementation, it often evolves, with staff adapting it to community needs and improving it based on lessons learned. To integrate a theme across all grade levels, some of the profiled schools take a "think big, start small" approach, as Normal Park's magnet coordinator calls it. For example, whenever possible—whether with a new strand (River Glen) or the creation of a brand new school building (FAIR)—the profiled schools were intentionally stair-stepped: They opened their doors with only the earliest grade levels in place, gradually adding higher grades in subsequent years. Starting on a smaller scale means fewer people share the burden of start-up tasks, but it is also an effective way to ensure fidelity in the execution of the theme. With fewer families to attract initially, there is less pressure to adjust the theme to appeal to a broader public. Stair-stepping also means having to find fewer numbers of adequately trained staff or interested families for the program in the first year.
For example, in 1986, when River Glen offered a two-way immersion alongside an English-only and transitional bilingual strand at neighboring Washington Elementary School in San Jose, magnet coordinator Linda Luporini-Hakmi had to interview each parent-English-speaking and Spanish-speaking-to explain the different program options. The first kindergarten families were painstakingly recruited and educated about the benefits of dual immersion. But as the magnet strand showed success in developing bilingual and biliterate students, families throughout the community took notice. Today, River Glen operates as a dedicated magnet school serving grades K-8 and is able to recruit both teachers and students by word of mouth.
Piloting and assessing programs on a small scale first is one way to increase staff buy-in for a plan they ultimately must execute. School leaders at Normal Park took this approach when they wanted to eliminate their two-week curriculum units, which involved museum field trips at a superficial "walk-through" level, and replace them with quarter-long modules that would incorporate weekly museum expeditions as an integral component. Wanting to try out the idea on a small scale before taking it schoolwide, leaders asked teachers to volunteer to develop and implement a new module. The second-grade teaching team stepped up, collaborating with staff at the Tennessee Aquarium to create a nine-week oceans module, which subsequently generated impressive student engagement and quality student work that demonstrated mastery of skills. Based on this success, other grade-level teams reportedly embraced the new curriculum approach with enthusiasm, setting out to develop their own modules with the integrity needed for whole-school implementation.
Even with a clear blueprint for an innovative curriculum, implementing a quality theme-based program over time presents ongoing challenges. Research shows that innovations often fail because long-standing practices or firmly held beliefs about schooling persist and are difficult to overturn.11 More recently, districts and states have also faced the challenge of meeting annual adequate yearly progress (AYP) standards as part of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). And however much they diverge from traditional, textbook-centered approaches to educating students, magnet schools, too, must ensure that their innovative curricula comply with externally imposed standards, priorities, or mandates, whether from the district, state, or federal government. These profiled schools demonstrate that a skillful, thoughtful, and committed staff can meet this challenge with success and integrity.
All of these schools revisit their curriculum maps yearly to improve alignment with state and district standards. In 2005, Raymond staff rearranged the four engineering quarters to synchronize more closely with the scope and sequence for the Aldine Independent School District common assessments used across the district. By switching the mechanical and chemical engineering units, the curriculum is now in line with the quarterly testing without much compromise in the classroom. Similarly, teachers at Normal Park mapped their museumbased curriculum across grade-level strands, grouping lessons and units to match state science and social studies standards.
At a time when it can be tempting for schools to respond to the need to raise proficiency rates by replacing arts, social studies, and science instruction with additional hours of mathematics and English, these profiled magnet schools are providing a rigorous, theme-based curriculum without apology and are making AYP in the process. As principal Jill Levine explains, "I was determined that we're not going to be a school that obsessed over test scores. … Our model works because the depth and rigor of the curriculum transfers over. The kids know how to think, and they know how to read, and they know how to comprehend. They do well on the tests because they're engaged in learning."