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Fully Implementing the Program
Creating magnet schools, getting them up and running and serving the right student mix, takes a lot of upfront time and effort. But the enduring challenge is making them work: keeping the organizational eye fixed squarely on the prize, being relentless about staying the course, sustaining momentum and keeping commitment alive. This covers a lot of territory, but the districts in this guide focused on the following keys to successful implementation.
Build in time for teacher collaboration
Successful school innovation, Fullan8 stresses, is about time: making time, taking time, finding more useful ways to spend time. This is especially true for magnets where an entire school is focusing on a particular theme and extra time is needed to develop and sustain it. Many traditional schools suffer from a tradition that isolates teachers behind their classroom walls and that is stingy with time for working and learning together. Successful magnet programs help their schools break from tradition and eliminate these barriers. These districts and their schools have been creative in rethinking and restructuring time for teachers to work together and with experts to implement their themes. Faculty meetings are recast to get the most out of them, and available professional development time is structured to make it serve schoolwide goals.
Schools make teachers' protected planning time available in several ways. Houston school leaders support common planning periods and enrichment activities, both formal and informal. The High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, for example, employs a meeting cycle in which once every six weeks a specific group of teachers from similar disciplines and different grade levels meets to deal with issues and events prevalent in their field. Once all six groups have met, a full faculty meeting is held, at which participants share key points and any recommendations from their respective meetings. Then, in the last session of the cycle, joint decisions are finalized. This repeated process allows all parties to provide input and work collaboratively across all disciplines. In Hamilton, Battle Academy relies so heavily on full-day quarterly planning meetings to evaluate progress toward goals that many consider these "the heart and soul of this school." Teachers take a half day the week before the meeting to plan for it. To give teachers more time for joint planning, the principal at another Hamilton school has cut back on the number of faculty meetings, using email to communicate much of the information that was traditionally communicated at the faculty meetings.
Some districts find ways to increase time. Hot Springs, for example, added five days of staff development to the teacher's contract to support teacher learning and program implementation. At the district's Gardner Elementary School, teachers have a common planning time across grade levels, and all principals meet with teams once a week to discuss themes, address instructional and assessment issues, develop future plans, and meet with support staff to hear their concerns. Wake added quarterly core team meetings as a new step in its magnet implementation process, and staff members say they wish they had always done this. These meetings "help steer the course" by giving staff a structured opportunity to identify and resolve problems or issues. School administrators try to be sensitive to teachers' time by allowing for planning during school hours.
A major challenge in ensuring effective professional development is to get people together in the same physical space. Montclair surmounts this challenge by providing professional development to groups of teachers from clusters of magnet schools that are on the same schedule. The district also practices "alignment" of professional development so that teachers become familiar with what teachers in the grade before them and the grade following them are doing. In some cases, time to collaborate is fostered through organizational arrangements, by creating sheer proximity. Montclair's Glenfield Middle School was organized into "houses" so that all of the grade level teachers can meet daily to discuss student needs and curriculum or theme integration issues.
Restructuring the school day or student learning time can free up blocks of time for teachers to plan and collaborate. Some literally shave minutes. One Hamilton school administrator reports coming up with extra time for teacher planning by moving the school start time ahead five minutes, reducing time allocated for students to change classes, and making the lunch period slightly shorter. Without changing any one thing a huge amount, the principal captured 40 minutes that had previously been "dead time."
Provide high-quality professional development
As part of their implementation plan, all these magnet schools tap outside expertise to some degree. They do so through such traditional learning opportunities as workshops, inservice activities, and conferences, but they also recognize the importance of school-based professional development that is embedded as part of the school culture and driven by program goals and student needs. Two Hamilton schools, for example, have hired a literacy consultant who serves in an ongoing capacity rather than delivering a one-shot training.
Given the highly specialized curriculum of magnets, teachers often need extra training in the theme itself, whether it's the Montessori method or earth science. Before any of Hamilton's art schools opened, every teacher in those schools went through two weeks of discipline based arts education. The training helped classroom teachers understand how the various arts could be integrated into their curriculum from the standpoint of such folks as the art specialist, the visual artist, and the performing artist. Arts experts stay involved after the training, continuing to work with classroom teachers on content integration because, explains one district representative, neither the district nor the schools wanted two separate faculties, one an arts faculty and one an academic faculty. Hot Springs encourages both school faculty and district personnel to visit other magnet programs to bring back "the best information out there."
Professional development is driven by school goals. To promote high student performance, five of Wake's magnets integrate a triad of educational reform approaches: effective schools philosophy and research; Total Quality Management theory and practice; and Baldrige Education Criteria for Performance Excellence. Teachers at Hamilton's Paideia-based magnet schools naturally receive special training in the Paideia approach, which integrates three teaching methods (didactic instruction, personal coaching of academic skills, and weekly seminars) that enhance literacy along with problem-solving and other higher-level skills. In addition to bringing in trainers, the schools rely on their more-experienced educators to mentor new teachers. The schools also arrange release time so new teachers can sit in on Paideia seminars.
Montclair benefits from the proximity of Montclair State University, which has provided magnet teachers with training in critical skills for successfully teaching diverse learners, such as differentiated instruction.
Professional development is also driven by student performance data. For example, before Hot Springs arranges for professional development at its magnet schools, the district reviews state assessment results and benchmark testing and uses that analysis to identify and focus the professional development. One problem with professional development, Hamilton educators believe, is that too often it begins with what teachers do rather than what students need. The district's Critical Friends Groups begin, instead, with what students do. Each group brings together six to ten teachers within a school over a period of at least two years. After getting a solid grounding in group-process skills, members focus on designing learning goals for students that can be stated specifically enough that others can understand them. With those goals in mind, members then look at student work and explore how they can improve their own teaching practices and their students' academic achievement.
Coordinate the curriculum with state and district standards
Since many, although not all, magnets have their own curricular focus (e.g., criminal justice, environmental science), one important task is to make sure they nonetheless cover all key state academic standards. This is a greater challenge for older schools that started before their state adopted academic standards. Today all Montclair magnet schools teach the same core curriculum because they must incorporate content standards established by the New Jersey State Department of Education. What makes each a magnet school is the specialized, theme-based program it uses to deliver that curriculum. But Montclair's superintendent explains that the standards movement makes it harder for schools to differentiate themselves since they must all implement the same curriculum standards that, for some schools, were not in place when they started. The challenge is to maintain qualities that make them distinctive while offering the same core content with high standards.
In Wake, the curriculum that is developed for specific themes undergoes careful scrutiny to ensure that it is aligned with the state and county Standard Course of Study (ScoS) goals and objectives. Beginning at the proposal level, the magnet curriculum guides are reviewed and revised by both the Magnet Department and the Curriculum and Instruction Department for adherence to the particular magnet theme and alignment with the ScoS. Communication between the two departments has aided the Wake magnet system in its accountability to the district's Goal 2008: 95 percent of students in grades 3 through 12 will be at or above grade level as measured by the state of North Carolina End-of-Grade or Course tests, and all student groups will demonstrate high growth.
Newer magnet schools profit by knowing in advance that regardless of their curricular focus, whether aviation science or music, as they plan their curriculum they must align it with state content standards.
The Hot Springs superintendent believes that like all good schools, successful magnet schools are guided by four points: knowing what students are expected to learn, knowing whether they learned it, intervening and changing the system based on what schools know about student performance, and building staff development around student achievement results. Thus, Hot Springs principals and teachers are expected to align their instructional objectives with the state assessment; review benchmark tests to evaluate student, teacher, and school performance; and build intervention strategies and professional development around the areas of weakness. While themes are essential to the magnet schools, the instructional foci on all campuses are mathematics and literacy. This is because the district's magnet program is intended to align with the Arkansas Curriculum Framework in which all schools follow a strict scope and sequence of instruction in mathematics and literacy. This ensures comprehensive coverage of all standards dictated by the state and evaluated through both district and state assessment programs. To establish standards for all the themes, Hot Springs used state standards for the math strand and brought in consultants to help ensure that the remaining themes were being infused into core curriculum and that appropriate electives were being established. To make sure all players in this system know their part, the district uses "magnet program activity plans," which identify what needs to be done and who is responsible (see figure 10).
Use outside resources, especially parents, to implement the program
Perhaps more than any other kind of school, magnets depend on community participation-for thematic expertise, for facilities, and, not least, for donations of equipment and funds. Each magnet school uses multiple strategies for engaging stakeholders. Some, as mentioned above, form groups to aid in the process. Duval's Magnet Advisory Council, consisting of district staff, teachers, principals, and members from the community, higher education, and private industry, is funded through the magnet office and organizes events such as a party honoring magnet teachers. The council's primary purpose is to act as a communication tool for the magnet program. The districtwide Wake Educational Partnership was conceived as a means of bringing private sector support to the public school system for such things as student scholarships, funding for teachers, and student internships.
Houston maintains a community relations department that reaches out to the business community in hopes of generating business-school partnerships. When it identifies a business interested in offering its time, services, or money, the department pairs the business with a school in need of the resources offered. One of the district's biggest business partners is the Houston Rockets basketball team. Several players, including Yao Ming, visit 10 Houston schools to encourage students to meet their goals in the district's "Read to Achieve" program. The team also provides the schools with sports equipment, rewards, and incentives that are a part of the program.
FIGURE 10. Hot Springs Magnet Program Activity Plan (Sample)
As noted earlier, Hamilton's seven local museums, spanning an array of subject areas including American art, nature, sea life, and African American culture, collaborate with two of the district's magnet schools. School and museum educators work together to develop the curriculum, which emphasizes students displaying their learning through such hands-on activities as actually building exhibits. The museums make all their resources and exhibits available to the schools. Normal Park Museum Magnet is a good illustration of how students benefit from the commitment to diversity. The school serves students from all over Hamilton County; about 55 percent are white and 45 percent African American. The museum exhibits that students build, which are displayed quarterly at an exhibit night, are proof that all students are capable of quality work when afforded the same opportunities. "If you look at their exhibits, you won't know which kids are rich and which kids are poor, or where they come from," says one teacher. "That's because they all have access to the same resources. It's different from a school where they assign take-home projects. Everything is done here, at the school, so the projects are all of equal quality."
All Hamilton magnet schools require parents of magnet students (i.e., those from outside the school's attendance zone) to volunteer a minimum of 18 hours per school year. The district employs a full-time parent coordinator on each campus to assist parents in meeting the 18-hour obligation and act as a point of contact for the volunteers. Although parents of neighborhood students are not required to volunteer, through encouragement their school participation has also increased. During the school year 2003-04, Hamilton parents logged over 70,000 hours of volunteer service, saving the district an estimated $360,500. Because the requirement brings more parents into each school, communication has improved, taking place as often as not through informal meetings in the hallway.
In Montclair, says the assistant superintendent, "There is an army of parents who are there when we need them." Parents are instrumental in lobbying for money, she said, crediting them with helping to pass several school budgets through the approval process recently. In hopes of increasing involvement by parents of children who receive free and reduced lunch, the district has begun offering childcare, food, and transportation for school meetings and events.
Parents are involved in the schools in other ways, as well. At one magnet school, for example, willing parents receive six weeks of training so they can help support the school's writing program for third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders.
In Montclair, one magnet principal keeps a "book of talents" that lists parents and what they can offer and be called on to do in class. One parent, for example, is a dinosaur expert. Another parent put together an extensive glossary of important holidays from around the world so children could learn the real meaning of them, rather than a stereotypical rendition.
Summary for Fully Implementing the Program