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An Evolving Multipurpose Tool
Historically, districts used magnet schools as a mechanism for achieving voluntary desegregation in their public school systems, whether proactively or under court order. From 1972 to 1981, districts were eligible for funding under the Emergency School Aid Act to implement magnet schools, federal support that continued with the authorization of the Magnet Schools Assistance program (MSAP) in 1985. Today, magnet schools are seen to have multiple, overlapping purposes. Under the aegis of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Innovation and Improvement, MSAP grants are given to projects that are expected to assist in the desegregation of public schools by addressing minority group isolation in schools with substantial numbers of minority group students. At the same time, these projects are expected to help achieve systemic education reforms and to give all of their students the opportunity to meet challenging academic content and achievement standards. Not least, those receiving funds are also expected to develop innovative education methods and practices that promote diversity and increase public school choice.1
Changing demographics across the country underscore the urgency for new approaches to avoiding minority group isolation in schools and to raising achievement for students of all backgrounds, as mandated in the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB). Today, public school educators face rapidly expanding nonwhite populations, with racial and ethnic diversity accelerating in suburban areas even as a growing de facto residential segregation isolates many urban school communities with largely low-income, minority students.2 At the same time, concerns about entrenched achievement gaps among students in different socioeconomic and ethnic or racial subgroups also have put the spotlight on excellence and equity. A body of research highlights the education benefits of student diversity.3 Studies also show that magnets, like other schools of choice, can increase students' motivation and parent satisfaction and involvement, as well as teacher engagement and morale.4
The continuing appeal of magnet schools is evidenced in their growing ranks. By one estimate, the number of magnet schools tripled between 1981 and 2002.5 Successful magnet schools are now seen as vehicles for accomplishing a range of overlapping goals for a host district: promoting voluntary desegregation, turning around low-performing schools, reversing declining enrollment, incubating innovative educational practices, catalyzing urban renewal, expanding a district's program of school choice, and, underlying everything else, closing achievement gaps. Yet, simply adopting or maintaining a thematic program for a magnet school is no formula for success—and sustaining success beyond initial improvements in enrollment and performance can be elusive: School leadership changes, new staff replace those with the initial vision and commitment that helped launch the magnet school, and competition for resources needed to sustain a program stiffens. Consider the experience of A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School, one of six successful magnet schools featured in this guide.