Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Normal Park Museum Magnet School
Chattanooga, Tenn.


Selected Characteristics of Magnet School and Host Districta
Magnet School: Normal Park Host District: Hamilton County
Year Established as Magnet 2001 Population Typeb Large Suburb
Theme Museum Size 542 square miles
Grades K-5 MSAPc Funded Funded: FY 1998-2006
Enrollment 318 students Enrollment 8,570 magnet students out of 40,262 total
Student Ethnicity 73% White
22% African-American
2% Hispanic
1% Asian
1% Native American
Student Ethnicity
(grades K-12)
62% White
33% African-American
3% Hispanic
1% Asian
1% Native American
Special Education 10% Special Education 10%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch 36% Free or Reduced-price Lunch 55%
English Language Learners 0% English Language Learners 1%

a All data drawn from State Report Card for school year 2006-07.
b From National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data for the school year 2005-06,
c Magnet Schools Assistance program

Walking into Normal Park, you may believe you've entered a children's museum. In the main lobby, a rainforest archway, artist murals, and a 300-gallon aquarium provide a colorful, multisensory introduction to this K-5 school's museum theme. Multimedia projects—revealing students' knowledge on such topics as the solar system and weather—line the hallways. Artwork and essays are on display in glass showcases. All are tangible reflections of the school's mission to cultivate students' lifelong passion for learning through a rigorous museum-based curriculum that inspires days of exploration for years of discovery.

In 2001, this historic neighborhood school, just north of downtown Chattanooga, opened as a new magnet hoping to turn around student achievement and reverse declining enrollment. Normal Park has lived up to its promise. Each year since its founding, student scores on the state test have increased, now reflecting almost universal proficiency as well as steady gains in closing the achievement gap, particularly for economically disadvantaged students. Today, the school is enrolled at full capacity of over 300 students, 120 more than in its pre-magnet days, with another 300 on the waiting list.

Founding and Early Challenges

In its first year, families were skeptical that adding "Museum Magnet" to the school's name would change outcomes for its students. "This school was on the state list to be shut down," recalls founding principal Jill Levine, "and this neighborhood had totally abandoned the school." Then funding from the federal Magnet Schools Assistance program (MSAP) became available to convert low-performing Normal Park into one of four magnet schools designed to attract white, suburban parents who commuted into the downtown area.

Levine was paired with magnet coordinator, Joyce Tatum, and the two new leaders had a six-month planning period to visit different museum-themed schools across the country and research best practices. Tatum helped forge partnerships with Chattanooga's cultural institutions and develop a curriculum framework. Meanwhile, Levine's biggest challenges included inheriting a staff culture of low expectations and defeatist attitudes; chronic student misbehavior; and a run-down, 100-year-old facility.

Levine worked hard to recruit educators who were passionate about the school's mission, encouraging unsupportive teachers to move on. She also implemented a zero-tolerance policy for student misbehavior and did not back down when local media criticized her for issuing dozens of suspensions for student fighting. Establishing a safe and orderly environment paralleled the work of creating physical conditions conducive to learning. Levine maximized available resources to restore the decrepit building: Community volunteers painted every classroom; staff wrote grants to obtain funds to refinish the floors; district facility and magnet funds paid for new lighting; and murals were created by local artists for the school's walls and an exhibit room. "All along," says Levine, "I wanted Normal Park to be the school my children go to, a school that everybody wants to go to." Within the year, she was sending out press releases and inviting the public to see all the changes taking place at Normal Park.

Implementing a Successful Program

Normal Park's academic program is built around four cross-curricular modules that incorporate weekly class expeditions to partner museums. Each quarterly module focuses on a schoolwide theme culminating in an Exhibit Night. Teachers use a backwards-planning method and work to engage students in a system of inquiry aimed at fostering intellectual curiosity and real-life discovery. One local museum director says that whenever his staff notice a particularly inquisitive, thoughtful student, "If we ask what school they go to, it's always Normal Park."

Grade-level teams work with museum staff to plan hands-on learning experiences. During the "A Day in the Life" module, for example, students study the city of Chattanooga to answer, "What makes people choose a place to live?" They learn about services, laws, and civic responsibilities within communities. Visits to the Chattanooga Choo-Choo, the Regional History, and the African American Museums bring to life the history of transportation and social aspects of community life. On Exhibit Night, students guide visitors through their cardboard cityscape of the town, explaining the importance of buildings and services in their created community.

"Our kids do well on the tests because they're engaged in learning," Levine says. Responsibility for this engagement rests squarely on the shoulders of teachers. "There are some children who won't necessarily get the support at home that they need to be successful," Levine reminds her staff, "but we can't just sit around and complain about that. It's our job to provide safety nets for them." Staff require that all student exhibits be completed at school, thus ensuring that access to expensive materials, computer time, and parent support are not factors limiting a child's ability to produce high-quality projects. "No one gives up on the hardest-to-reach child," one parent observes. "Everyone is valued, and the children and families know that."

Differentiated instruction meets the needs of each student. Teachers use guided reading methods to teach literacy, engaging small groups of students in tailored fluency and comprehension activities. A system of leveled texts geared to students' reading abilities and individualized lessons target specific needs so that students advance to more difficult texts at their own pace. Struggling readers receive early intervention to accelerate growth. Based on the success of guided reading, teachers employ similarly differentiated instruction for mathematics and spelling to help them close the achievement gap.

Professional development at Normal Park parallels the school's approach to teaching: It is focused, supported, and differentiated. The administration supports teachers with material resources as well as expert coaching, so that new ideas can be realized in the classroom. Teachers attend a summer institute in June, collaborate with coaches each quarter, and work in small teams with a reading consultant who facilitates model lessons and peer observations. "In other schools," one teacher notes, "once the bell rings,teachers close their doors and that's it. Here, we talk to each other; we work together."

Establishing Systems for Sustainability

Since the school's turnaround, students have scored well above district averages, and the district has given Normal Park autonomy to innovate as long as test scores remain high. To continue to improve teaching and learning, staff members look at data from various assessments, including standardized test scores and reading-level scores. Each grade level has end-of-year targets for students' reading performance, for example, and weekly reports to the principal keep the goals at the forefront. During Exhibit Nights, when students show their projects in museum-like displays that include artifacts, labels, and student guided tours, teachers check for evidence of what they have learned. Feedback from the Exhibit Nights is useful for refining the curriculum each year. Tatum says that as soon as she comes home from an event, she has several e-mails from staff suggesting, "If we would just do this … it would be better."

From its beginning, Normal Park has been both a model and partner in a healthy network of schools within the county striving for continuous improvement. The district facilitates cross-school activities to discuss and exchange best practices. While Normal Park maintains its unique theme and approach to learning, some of its most promising strategies for raising student achievement are used at every other elementary school in the district.

To meet a financial crisis in 2003, one innovative response was to create the Normal Park Education Fund, a board of parents and community leaders that raises funds for the school. Currently, the Education Fund pays for a science lab, dance and reading consultant positions, and for quarterly family literacy nights in support of established school needs. As one teacher explains, "The Ed Fund listens to what our needs are, then they go out and raise the necessary funds to make those things happen."

In addition to its museum partnerships, the school has forged an alliance with professional development programs at the University of Tennessee. Every year Normal Park hosts a professor and graduate students from the university's Teacher Preparation Academy. These teachers-in-training work side-by-side with school staff and support individualized instruction, in addition to training and recruiting future teachers for the district. Similar to the school's relationships with the city's museums, these partnerships provide staff with much-needed resources-grants, materials, professional development-to support teaching and learning activities.

Sustaining Success at Normal Park Museum Magnet School: Milestones

Normal Park's conversion into a museum magnet was part of a turnaround process for an urban school once plagued by declining enrollment and low test scores. By attracting strong staff, cultivating museum and business partners, and engaging the community at large, Normal Park has proven to be a model for how magnet schools can play a significant role in districtwide school reform.


Normal Park becomes one of four new downtown magnet schools created with a three-year federal Magnet Schools Assistance program (MSAP) grant.

New principal and magnet coordinator hired; given six months to plan.

Building renovations create children's museum atmosphere.


Summer professional development (PD) to create vision, mission, and begin curriculum mapping. Ongoing PD for literacy training and guided reading.

Code of Conduct and Expectations established for students and staff.

School opens as a museum magnet with learning expeditions and student exhibitions.


Parents establish the Education Fund just as MSAP funding runs out and Normal Park no longer qualifies for funding from Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which supports schools with large numbers of students from low-income families.

Staff use district planning days for museum collaboration and module development. Student displays during Exhibit Night reflect deepened curricular connections and museum-quality presentations.


Museum partners receive $500,000 Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant to enhance museum-school connection.

Staff focus on differentiated instruction. Test scores increase dramatically—over 20% in core academic areas.

Normal Park recognized as top magnet school by the Magnet Schools of America (MSA).


Literacy grant from the Osborne Fund of the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga and the Warren Family Foundation provides for "academic safety nets" in reading and writing with additional reading specialist and quarterly family literacy nights.

PTA gathers widespread community support for playground renovation that serves as an accessible community park and outdoor learning environment.


Normal Park recognized with an MSA award for third consecutive year.


The Board of Education approves a proposal to split and expand Normal Park from a K-5 site into two separate sites: a K-3 and a 4-8 school. This would increase the number of students accepted at the K-5 level, aiding efforts to maintain diversity as zone base gentrifies, and provide a museum theme track into the middle school grades.


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Last Modified: 09/28/2009