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Evolving Goals and Changing Communities
As the movement for magnet schools gained momentum, districts also expanded their goals to focus on achievement-oriented outcomes as well as to address issues of the changing community context and demographics. New purposes for magnet schools include modeling innovative educational methods and leveraging the element of choice to increase student learning and parent satisfaction. In some districts, magnet schools have dramatically improved student achievement levels, renewing interest in these schools as a promising strategy for improving student learning. As part of a strategy for increasing school choice and the dissemination of innovative education practices, magnet schools also can serve as effective vehicles for providing low-income and minority students with better options for education. As MSA founder Donald Waldrip says, "Magnet schools are based on the premise that all students do not learn in the same ways, that if we find a unifying theme or a different organizational structure for students of similar interest, those students will learn more in all areas."5 The MSAP evaluation of its 1998 grantees found that teachers in the magnet schools funded by the program emphasized higher-order thinking skills and used more varied assessment practices than teachers in traditional schools. As a magnet school principal explains, "A primary benefit of launching a theme concept is that it motivates staff members to implement innovative strategies in the classroom … brings cohesiveness to a school's staff, and offers new opportunities for leadership."6
Choice is a powerful element that can help create the conditions for successful magnet schools. Students are more engaged in the classroom, parents and community members become more actively involved with school life, and staff members feel connected by the curricular coherence and shared culture in schools of choice.
There is an ongoing challenge to prepare secondary students to demonstrate academic achievement at high levels. Magnet high schools are producing positive results, as the schools profiled in this guide illustrate. Part of the secret of their success has to do with the opportunity to experience innovative learning and the level of rigor they provide in their programs and instruction. At these schools, academic excellence and innovation go hand in hand, preparing students for college and for success in careers beyond.
This guide is written for policy-makers, district and school staff, as well as educators and parents interested in understanding what successful magnet schools offer and how the strategies they use to implement innovative programs can increase equity and achievement levels for their students. Readers of this guide will need to select, adapt, and implement practices that meet their individual needs and school contexts using the ideas and practices from the schools featured in this guide as a springboard for their own action research.