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Meeting the Challenge: One School's Story
Among its many distinctions, the A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School (Combs) in Raleigh, N.C., claims to be the nation's first elementary school to focus on leadership development in children. How the school has transformed itself over the last decade illustrates some of the challenges magnet schools face when it comes to sustaining success. Using an extended day program as its initial "magnet" to attract diverse families, Combs had raised proficiency rates through school reform efforts that, in the late 1990s, earned it a National Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education program conceived to honor schools making significant gains in achievement. But by 1999, the school's success appeared to be waning: Combs was underenrolled and faced a plateau in achievement scores.
Combs is part of the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS), whose magnet initiatives date back to 1981 when they were developed along with a student assignment process to ensure high-performing, desegregated schools across the district. Combs had been one of a number of extended-day magnet schools operating since 1982 when the WCPSS adopted the Schools of Choice program to provide equity in education opportunity for students. But in the mid-1990s, when enrollment patterns revealed that this theme was no longer compelling enough to attract a diverse population of families, WCPSS decided to phase out the extended-day magnets entirely.
To retain Combs' status as a magnet, principal Muriel Summers was asked by the district superintendent to come up with a new theme, described, she says, as being "like none other in the state … preferably like none other in the country." Summers faced the added hurdle of receiving no new funds for implementing a new theme. "We faced many challenges to make this model happen," she recalls, "but we looked at the challenge as an opportunity for change."
Without blueprints or start-up funds, Summers and her staff took the plunge. They began by reaching out to a loyal community of college professors, business people, and parents of diverse ethnicities, asking them to describe the characteristics of the ideal school for their children. Responses were consistent, she recalls: "Academics were assumed, but never mentioned. It was always, 'We want our children to be caring, hard working, and compassionate, to make good choices, and to grow up and give back.' It really was all about character." The idea for a magnet school focused on leadership and character development began to take shape. Its new mission was "to develop leaders one child at a time." And at Combs, character education meant increasing students' individual accountability, building a school culture of continuous improvement for all, and raising academic performance levels.
Since its conversion to a leadership model, Combs has avoided stagnation in both performance and enrollment: It has raised its proficiency rates from 84 percent to 95 percent, as measured by the state's end-of-grade achievement goals, while more than doubling its original 1982 enrollment of 360. Not content to rest on their laurels, Combs' principal and staff say they are determined to reach 100 percent proficiency as part of their commitment to serving their diverse student body. With a total of 809 students in grades K-5, Combs has one of the largest English language learner and special education populations in WCPSS, with its free or reduced-price lunch population closely mirroring the county's demographics as well. It has no majority race, enrolling large numbers of African-American, white, Hispanic, and Asian American (chiefly, Southeast Asian, and Chinese) students. Over 50 countries are represented in the school as first- or second-generation immigrants. Combs receives numerous requests for site visits from educators around the country and has a leadership training partnership with a private school in Japan.