Innovations in Education: Successful Magnet High Schools
September 2008
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Innovating for Excellence

How are these magnet programs meeting the challenge of high school reform? Each of these profiled schools was created as an instrument for change, either as a means to reduce minority-group isolation in schools or to answer the call for a more skilled workforce by raising the quality of high school education. To meet those challenges, these schools have developed a variety of promising strategies and responses that may be useful to other schools and districts.

The eight schools profiled in this guide exemplify some of the innovative program strands and curricular themes found in magnet schools. The schools have attracted students to select these demanding, content-rich educational programs and bring families from diverse backgrounds to the schools. Some themes are designed to prepare students for careers, such as the health professions and engineering, that have workforce shortages, making the magnet programs even more attractive to students and their families. For example, Galileo Magnet High School (Danville, Va.) offers study strands in air and space technology, biotechnology, advanced communications and networking, as well as the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Programme (see fig. 1 on p. 8). Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High School (DASH) is another exemplar of a career-focused high school program, the first in its district to focus on design careers in the arts. DASH combines a rigorous academic program with specialized design training. Other magnets emphasize innovative pedagogic approaches as a way of setting high standards for children of all backgrounds. At Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS), founder Jack Murrah believed that the principles of democratic liberal arts education, espoused by the philosopher Mortimer Adler in The Paideia Proposal, could change how students learn by emphasizing critical thinking, reflection, and active participation in seminar classroom settings. Nationally recognized as a Paideia model, CSAS offers a college preparatory, liberal arts education that aims to realize the potential of any student who comes through its doors.

Figure 1. Magnet Strands of Study at Galileo Magnet High School, School Brochure (Excerpt)

Magnet schools can be innovative in the thematic curriculum they provide, but sometimes it is the organizational structure in the district or the school environment itself that is inventive. Forward-thinking districts have implemented systemic change by creating feeder systems, aligning thematic magnet schools from kindergarten to 12th grade. In Houston, the Aldine Independent School District developed thematic curricular vertical strands spanning K-12, starting with students at a young age to prepare them for rigorous high school programs (see fig. 2 on p. 10). This strategy has been so popular in the district that in 2007-08, G. W. Carver Magnet High School (Carver) had only 25 lottery seats open for 300 non-feeder applications, with most of their 845 students coming up through the vertical feeder elementary and middle schools.

Magnet programs also have been developed as part of community solutions to complex challenges. Metropolitan Learning Center (MLC), a grade 6-12 magnet, whose interdisciplinary theme focuses on global education, grew out of a climate of crisis for public schools in the Hartford area. Due to the nature of that community's housing and demographics, an inter-district model was adopted as a strategy for desegregating public schools there as mandated by a 1996 Connecticut Supreme Court case settlement.8 MLC serves students from the 543-square-mile capitol region of Hartford, with six or more towns sending students and contributing funding for them. The Capitol Region Education Council (CREC) manages the cooperative partnership among the participating districts that send students to MLC.

Innovation at the district level is one avenue for improving high school programs. In the late 1980s, Miami-Dade County, Fla., launched the Saturn School project, as a means to create cutting-edge teaching and learning models throughout the district. A request for proposals called on educators and community members "to design the school of your dreams." That led to the development of Miami's Design and Architecture Senior High (DASH), whose program focuses on preparing students for careers in the visual arts and design. At Northeast Magnet High School (NEM) in Wichita, Kans., it was district superintendent Stuart Berger who spearheaded the use of magnet programs as a catalyst for high school reform.

A distinctive feature of these schools is the sophisticated way that they leverage thematic curriculum, exposing students to professional quality projects with real-life applications. In some instances, this teaching strategy connects classroom-level work to community-based practice; in others, it involves raising the accountability and performance level for final products. For example, when Hurricane Wilma blew down an observatory tower in the southern part of Everglades National Park in 2005, students in the DASH architecture program were invited to design a replacement structure. Each student drafted plans, and submitted them to a local architectural firm to select one design for the park. At the same school, students in the industrial design program created drawings for a chair design contest (see fig. 3 on p. 11) sponsored by a local real estate firm and the HSBC bank in Switzerland. Students completed 48 chair designs and from these, 11 finalists were selected, and five were manufactured as prototypes demonstrating the students' professional quality work.

Figure 2. The Magnet School Strands in Aldine Independent School District, Houston (Excerpt)

Figure 3. Sample Chairs Designed By Students in the Industrial Design Program At Design and Architecture Senior High School (Miami)

Image showing photo and sketches of top five finalist chairs designed by students.

Source: Design and Architecture Senior High School. Used with permission.

The U.S. Department of Education does not mandate or prescribe particular curricula or lesson plans. The information in the figure above was provided by the identified site or program and is included here as an illustration of only one of many resources that educators may find helpful and use at their option. The Department cannot ensure its accuracy. Furthermore, the inclusion of information in this figure does not reflect the relevance, timeliness, or completeness of this information; nor is it intended to endorse any views, approaches, products, or services mentioned in the figure.

Teaching in these schools is often project-based, with students experiencing the relevance of their rigorous learning. For example, at Galileo Magnet High School (Galileo), in an Advanced Application of Biotechnology class, students work in pairs in a state-of-the-art laboratory. Using a special kit with pipettes to detect antibodies in the blood stream, they can determine if there has been exposure to a disease, such as smallpox.

Several of these schools have innovative strategies for infusing technology in their environments. At Carver, the principal piloted an internal communication technology system for staff so that any teacher can check the status of a student's grades, attendance report, and testing data with the click of a mouse. At MLC, teachers use interactive whiteboards, and every student has a laptop. Instead of a school library with books, Galileo has a research center to give students access to cutting-edge science. They can download data, reports, and conduct their own online research. For students in rural areas, small towns, and inner-city neighborhoods that are often quite insular, new technology offers an expansive array of resources that aims to open local viewpoints to global perspectives.

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Last Modified: 11/19/2009