Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Attract Quality Leaders and Staff

If the featured schools are any indication, magnet schools with a strong curricular theme and clear mission naturally attract passionate educators who share a common interest. At the same time, district staff must be proactive about selecting principals and magnet coordinators with the necessary credibility and knowledge. Strong magnet school administrators foster trust within a diverse community. Their expertise includes implementing specialized curriculum and serving as an effective, motivating instructional leader. Having the right school leaders in place also attracts a critical mass of high-quality staff, which itself serves as a draw for those seeking a collaborative and positive work environment.

At River Glen, conversations with teachers reveal that they see the school both as the ideal model for a language immersion education program and as an oasis of like-minded, similarly driven colleagues. "Everyone has chosen to be here," says one veteran teacher, "and this is like the top of the mountain for us." "Here, you're at the table with the legends," adds a teacher new to River Glen, explaining the professional appeal of working with dual immersion pioneers. Across the board, district staff interviewed for this guide agree that bringing in quality leaders and teachers to implement a magnet school is a critical element for success.

Why would a strong veteran teacher take a chance on a fledgling program that has no proven track record? Like many founding families at magnet schools, staff report being drawn to a strong school administrator, a leader who can speak to the visionary promise of a magnet school as well as attend to the brass tacks of starting a new school. Hoggard's first magnet principal was handpicked by then-associate superintendent Kay Carl at a time when Clark County was launching Las Vegas' magnet elementary program, partly in response to the needs of the African-American community. Listening to the concerns of local activists, she recruited a well-respected African-American principal, who succeeded in drawing a diverse set of families and staff to the new school. Sometimes, a strong reputation as an educator is a more influential factor in motivating people to follow an instructional leader than a track record as a principal. At River Glen, a cadre of bilingual teachers advocated for a fellow educator to lead the district's new magnet strand. They believed that someone with strong bilingual experience and a deep commitment to the innovative model could rally support from likeminded colleagues. Normal Park's founding principal had made her mark as a teacher and assistant principal within Hamilton County. Although relatively young, she had a core group of colleagues willing to follow her to the new museum magnet. She was immediately paired with a magnet coordinator, a veteran well known for her experience with curriculum development, who had her own following.

Founding staff of magnet schools also report feeling compelled by the chance to be a part of a creative and dynamic process. Some speak of finding inspiration in forging a new community, designing new curriculum, and developing a new program, even while such tasks demand longer workdays and extra responsibilities. Many of them speak of having felt like a "square peg in a round hole" in more traditional schools. They sought an environment that would grant them the autonomy to work in ways more aligned with their vision for excellence in teaching and learning. The additional commitments, shared among colleagues with the same passion and purpose, appear to be viewed as necessary and acceptable components for realizing the school's mission and innovative theme.

At some of the featured schools, principals were given the autonomy to hire a completely new staff that is committed to the specialized curriculum as opposed to inheriting and automatically retaining existing staff. As part of a districtwide initiative to transform its low-performing schools, Normal Park was reconstituted during its conversion to a museum magnet, something the principal says was critical to changing the culture of low expectations that had plagued the school in its earlier incarnation. Reconstitution meant that teachers who wanted to stay at the school needed to reapply for their position. During that period, the principal acknowledged to the staff that the new environment was not going to be a perfect fit for everyone; she encouraged teachers who had opposed the magnet conversion to find a better match for their personal teaching goals and style. At Combs, where the adoption of the leadership theme happened over the course of only one summer, the staff was not reconstituted, but teachers essentially self-selected themselves to another school the following year if they did not agree with the new curriculum requirements.

With the help of their host districts, the profiled magnet schools have found incentives to draw leaders and staff to the school. While none of the districts offer salary bonuses or stipends for the additional hours of work often needed, they create appealing professional environments that differentiate the school from other sites. Normal Park's principal, mother of a 6-month-old, was promised an on-site day care center at the new magnet school, an incentive she, in turn, used to recruit strong staff who had young children as well. Many founding staff report wanting to create a school good enough for their own children, a personal motivation that gives their work additional urgency. In each of the profiled sites, a significant number of staff members have children who either attend or have attended the school. Hamilton County's district policy guarantees a child's placement at an employee's magnet school, for everyone from the custodian to the principal. Other districts give children of school staff a priority in the lottery. Potential collaboration with partner organizations that provide after-school programs, opportunities for additional professional development, and unique classroom experiences also can draw teachers looking for innovative model schools to join.

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Last Modified: 09/28/2009