Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Establish a Rigorous and Relevant Curriculum

Curriculum makes a magnet school's theme and mission come alive. It articulates how the school will keep its promise to provide a compelling program that ensures academic success for all students. Planning a successful magnet school focuses school staff on leveraging a theme to develop a rich, challenging curriculum that can engage students from diverse backgrounds. At all the profiled schools, teachers are expected and supported to use principles of rigor and relevance to involve students in applying knowledge in real-world settings.8 While working backwards from state and district standards to develop curriculum, they set a bar that goes beyond these minimum requirements, demanding that students master critical thinking, communication, and life skills needed for future success. There is a natural link between the problem-solving, exploratory nature of the magnet curriculum and the focus on student mastery of high standards. Inquiry-driven, project-based learning is fun and engaging, but at these schools it also places a premium on serious, rigorous academic development for all students.

Figure 1. Statement of Core Values for A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School (Adapted)

Visionary Leadership

  • We believe leadership is a choice, not a position.
  • We believe in empowering through win-win agreements.

    Valuing Relationships

  • We believe in valuing relationships by seeking first to understand.
  • We believe that valuing and caring for each other is the heart of our school culture.
  • We believe every member of our community collaborates with us in our quest for excellence.


  • We believe in promoting good citizenship through community involvement.
  • We believe in teaching children to think globally and act locally.

Improvement/ Systems

  • We believe in continuous improvement for staff and students.
  • We are committed to aligning our system with local, state, and national standards.
  • We believe in the importance of renewal or "sharpening the saw."

Core Values and mission

  1. Be Proactive
  2. Begin With the End in Mind
  3. Put First Things First
  4. Think Win-Win
  5. Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
  6. Synergize
  7. Sharpen the Saw

Mission Statement: To develop leaders, one child at a time.

Data-Driven Decision

  • We begin with the end in mind in making decisions.
  • We believe that all decisions should first be based on what is best for children.
  • We believe management decisions should be based on reliable and relevant data.


  • We believe in providing students with the tools and authentic tasks that allow them to take responsibility for their own learning.
  • We believe Wake County Public School System's character traits and Covey's 7 Habits* are embedded in the curriculum.


  • We believe in putting first things first to ensure a timely response to internal and external stakeholders.
  • We believe in having systems and resources in place to respond to the changing cultural, social, and academic needs of children.

Focus on the Future
and Innovative

  • We believe in working synergistically to challenge the status quo.
  • We believe through modeling academic excellence and personal leadership, we will leave a legacy for others to follow.

* As identified by Stephen Covey in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

Source: A. B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School. Used by 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.

How do these schools infuse curriculum with authentic, challenging learning experiences? Hoggard teachers expose students to what they call "hands-on, minds-on" labs. These projects are modeled after the real-world work of mathematicians and scientists. For example, fifth graders conduct water-testing fieldwork with the local water district, dissect sheep eyeballs, and apply knowledge of computer programming to build robots. Similarly, at Raymond Academy, teachers use instructional strategies that require students to build their own knowledge through concrete engineering experiences. Instead of just reading books about designing bridges or listening to teachers talk about famous buildings, students are actively creating models.

Figure 2. Goals of River Glen Elementary & Middle School


San Jose Unified School District

Image of the San Jose Unified School District River Glen Elementary School logo.


  • Develop fluency and literacy in two languages: Spanish and English
  • Achieve proficiency in all academic subjects
  • Cultivate an understanding and appreciation of other cultures and develop positive attitudes toward fellow students, their families and their community.

The U.S. Department of Education does not mandate or prescribe particular curricula or lesson plans. The information in the figure to the left 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.

Source: River Glen Elementary & Middle School. Used by permission.

At Normal Park, weekly expeditions to museums introduce students to field specialists and advanced material not traditionally provided to young children. A third-grade class engaged in a nine-week unit on Tennessee ecology gets to do a "fish mapping" project at the local aquarium. In this activity, students observe different fish species and follow their movements in 10-second intervals using colored stickers on a cellophane overlay. Back in the classroom, students connect the dots on the cellophane to identify fish locations and analyze patterns. Based on their firsthand observation and data collection, students draw conclusions and ask questions about why certain fish stay in particular parts of the water. The museum-based curriculum provides Normal Park students with access to rich learning experiences. Through its modules, they are given the opportunity to cultivate levels of understanding about the world that a traditional textbook reading could not reproduce (see fig. 3 on p. 17).

In designing rigorous curriculum, these profiled magnet schools strive to meet exit standards beyond the minimum. In addition to pushing for high test scores, staff focus on helping students develop higher-order thinking and communication skills that will carry over into future success in colleges or careers. In these classrooms, "elementary" does not translate to low-level or rudimentary instruction. In K-1 science labs, Hoggard students learn about the dynamics of force and motion by creating objects that spin; related vocabulary, such as "gravity," "axis," and "rotation," is introduced and will be revisited as increasingly sophisticated concepts in upper elementary years.

Rigor and Relevance at Raymond Academy: What Does It Look Like?

Project-based Learning: Students engage in projects that mirror real-world tasks. Through advanced engineering labs and teamwork, students learn that different strategies can be used to solve problems like building a paper bridge to hold a certain amount of weight. Students gain deeper knowledge of subject matter while increasing self-direction and motivation to learn.

Integrated Engineering Curriculum: Teachers embed engineering concepts in all content areas, including mathematics, language arts, social studies, fine arts, and physical education. Instruction mirrors real-world applications.

Design Technology: Students engage in a problem-solving process used by engineers. They learn to identify a problem; write a design brief; investigate solutions; construct, test, and evaluate a product; and make adjustments. Students apply skills in real-world contexts involving use of architecture, science labs, and field experiences.

Presentation Station Productions: Students have technology-based opportunities to summarize and verbalize what they learn. They use digital cameras, create graphics, and give oral presentations.

Creating rigorous and relevant curriculum is an intellectually demanding task, profiting from significant attention from school leadership during the design period. To establish a curricular framework that integrates the school's theme and mission with district and state standards, founding administrators can benefit from having access to current, science-based research in education, as well as from having a planning period that allows for thoughtful application of relevant ideas to classroom practice. In each of the profiled schools, staff leaders had opportunities to work closely with experts in relevant fields, participate in theme-related training, or visit model sites as part of the curriculum design process.

Ideally, district staff move quickly to identify school leaders and then grant them time to research and design the unique curriculum. At Normal Park, MSAP funds were used to provide the principal and magnet coordinator with a planning period that included time for researching best practices, visiting other museum schools, and establishing key partnerships with the city's museums. Other featured schools were converted at the end of the school year, allowing only one summer to pull together a new magnet curriculum before doors re-opened to students in the fall. In the case of Combs, this challenge was minimized by having strong leaders and staff in place before the conversion. In many instances, these educators already had been exposed to district training in principles of management, quality performance, and effective leadership— principles that became the essential components of the school's innovative leadership model.

Figure 3. Normal Park Museum Magnet School Newsletter Notice: Summary of "Worlds of Wonder" Modules

Pre K Exploring our Senses - What are our five senses? How are they the same or different from animals? How are our senses fooled? What would it be like if you lacked one of your senses? PK will visit the Nature Center to learn about Owls, the Hunter Museum to discuss "art that fools the eye," the Aquarium to learn about Macaws and Octopi, and Creative Discovery Museum to experience the Barsamian Sculpture.
Kindergarten Cycles, Seasons, Weather, and the Solar System. K will visit the Aquarium to learn about diurnal and nocturnal animals and the Nature Center to study winter survival. Look for their "extreme weather" boxes, solar system books, and a 3D seasonal tree on Exhibit Night, our school's quarterly art exhibition.
1st grade Walk Like an Egyptian. 1st grade will explore Egyptian art and artifacts at the Chatt. African American Museum, compare alligators and crocodiles and the Nile vs. the TN rivers at the Aquarium, and learn about the life of an Egyptian child at Creative Discovery Museum. On Exhibit Night don't miss the beautiful sarcophagus covers, papyrus paintings, and the class "I Wonder" books that were sent to a school in Egypt
2nd grade Oceans. We will be going on a learning expedition almost every week! Some of our work on Exhibit will include: 3D ocean animals, a kelp forest, examples of ocean food chains and the effect of pollution, and our "abyss" boxes which feature our mythical creatures from the bottom of the ocean.
3rd grade Australia. 3rd grade will explore the political, physical, cultural and topographical aspects for the land "Down Under." We will compare Aboriginal culture with Native Americans, create didgerioddos, and learn about the ocean animals of the Great Barrier Reef.
4th grade Inventors & Inventions How did the Industrial Revolution influence inventions? We will visit the TN Valley Railroad to compare coal and steam engines and the Regional History Museum to learn about the rural electrification of the TN Valley. Dr. Shock will visit (always a favorite!) as well as local inventors. Students will be challenged to develop their own invention to solve an environmental problem.
5th grade Solar System. 5th grade will conduct an in-depth exploration of our solar system and will produce a to-scale replica for Exhibit Night. We will visit the Science Theatre and the Challenger Center to learn more about outer space and astronomy.

Certain themes have preexisting philosophies or principles that provide clear curricular frameworks for staff to build on. For the founding teachers who created River Glen's dual immersion program, that framework took the form of a subgrant made by the California Department of Education, which had received a Title VII9 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Founding staff point to the grant requirements as the school's touchstone for everything from its dual immersion model, in which students receive some instruction in Spanish and some in English, to effective teaching strategies (gestures, visual cues, and cooperative learning). River Glen's research-based model for dual immersion education came from Quebec, Canada, where both French and English are spoken in the classroom.

Sometimes collaboration with experts provides the necessary inspiration and perspective for designing rigorous, innovative curriculum. At Raymond, founding magnet staff were aided by Rice University and University of Texas professors in the development of an engineering curriculum. Staff at FAIR, a fine arts school focused on cross-cultural education, conceived the school's theater and dance residency program with help from local artists. They also collaborated with the National Urban Alliance for Effective Education, an organization focused on teaching, learning, and professional development in schools, to design a curriculum that promotes "high intellectual performance through students' culture, language, and cognition." In all the schools, professional experts provided valuable support for teachers to gain expertise in theme-related content and skills.

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Last Modified: 09/28/2009