Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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Establish Equitable Practices for a Diverse Student Body

Merely serving a diverse student population does not guarantee positive student interactions. Nor does it ensure equitable achievement outcomes. To reach these goals takes deliberate thought, professional expertise, and serious commitment to ensuring that all students benefit both academically and socially. Staff in these profiled magnet schools appear to accept this charge with an awareness of the challenges before them and the benefits that can follow, guided by a common goal, that all children will achieve academic success regardless of race, socioeconomic background, or home language. Additionally, school leaders report that staff take responsibility for creating learning environments in which intercultural contact occurs frequently and meaningfully, contributing to cognitive development and social attitudes in positive ways.

In their commitment to diversity and closing the achievement gap, the profiled schools provide rigorous academics to students based on their interest, no matter what their background, previous performance, or prior schooling experience. As Magnet Schools of America founder Donald Waldrip explains, "Magnet schools are based on the premise that all students do not learn in the same ways, and 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." 12 At Normal Park, where curriculum projects culminate with a public exhibition of student work, staff report that all children strive to develop strong writing skills and master content knowledge to create a museum-quality display. "The Exhibit Nights provide motivation for students," says principal Levine. "They know there's a standard for their work and there's an audience. That makes a huge difference for kids."

Research confirms what many in the business community recognize: Diversified learning settings can provide educational benefits for all participants if they are appropriately cultivated.13 A review of the curriculum at these featured schools reveals that staff see value in engaging students in authentic problem solving and introducing them to a wide range of perspectives. The expectation is that as students are introduced to diverse and distinct ways of seeing the world, they adopt and acquire more sophisticated cognitive tools. An evaluation of the 1998 MSAP grantees conducted by the American Institutes for Research concludes that teachers in MSAP schools emphasized higher-order thinking skills more often than their non-MSAP counterparts.14

In the profiled schools, the use of complex instruction— an approach that focuses on development of critical-thinking skills and the use of small-group problem solving—helps teachers meet the challenge of heterogeneous classrooms. In complex instruction, students are encouraged to see each other as resources, and teachers focus on ensuring that each individual student makes important intellectual contributions.15 For example, FAIR students learn about government and economics in a simulation project called "City," which requires fourth-grade classes to work in teams to hold elections, form companies, and sell goods as part of the process of creating a model city. Students can learn to handle real-world tasks and see how results vary across the different classrooms. As eighth-graders, FAIR students conduct research on a cultural conflict of their choice. In addition to writing a 10-page report, each student performs in the culminating "Finding Your Voice" exhibition that showcases each research project in a collaborative arts-based form. Throughout the school, curriculum is designed to tap into individual interests and talents and to ensure that students are exposed to multiple perspectives.

Staff at these featured schools try to maximize the intercultural contact necessary to generate diverse learning opportunities, designing curriculum that relies on cooperative learning and peer tutoring. River Glen's dual immersion model depends heavily on using peer support to help students with comprehension (via translation) and language acquisition (through social interactions). Native-Spanish-speaking students model and support English-speaking students in developing communication skills in authentic social and academic situations. In later grades, this peer support is reciprocated as Spanish speakers learn formal English with support from their native-English-speaking peers. At Raymond Academy, lab activities involve explicit instruction in the roles and skills in effective cooperative learning, a teaching strategy in which students of different ability levels are grouped together to complete assigned tasks. For example, one lab facilitator starts each year being very explicit about student roles and how to take turns with various responsibilities during experiments and presentations: One student is designated to record the results; another pours the liquid; and a third stirs. With constant reinforcement and opportunities to practice effective group work, students are given the opportunity to internalize the habits of collaboration. Staff report that students learn to value and utilize multiple perspectives to develop better end products and support each other's learning.

In the profiled schools, differentiated instruction is a common strategy used to reach students of all backgrounds and abilities without funneling students into tracks that influence their future access to college preparatory classes. At Raymond Academy, classroom teachers use the resource specialist and ESL teacher to break students into smaller groups and provide more individualized instruction. In the heterogeneous classrooms that are common to the featured schools, staff focus on creating a learning environment intended to challenge and support all students to meet high standards. At FAIR, as part of whole-school staff development, teachers are evaluated against a 25-point instructional framework that highlights best practices for achieving such equitable outcomes (see fig. 4 on p. 25). The list articulates common values and behaviors shared by effective educators of diverse populations, and it cues administrators to seek evidence of these practices when observing classrooms.

This commitment to mixed-ability classrooms means there must be academic safety nets to support struggling students, whether or not they are identified as having a learning disability, being English language learners, or anything else. At Raymond Academy, a low score or grade automatically mandates an intervention, like after-school tutoring. Many of the profiled sites have partnered with community nonprofit organizations, like the YMCA, to develop effective after-school programs that are closely aligned with classroom instruction; or with projects supported by the Department of Education's 21st Century Community Learning Centers program, which provide academic enrichment opportunities for students during nonschool hours. Teachers may be paid for their tutoring services before or after school hours, and a coordinator communicates with school staff to maximize the tutoring time to help with specific skills or assignments.

Given the long distances that some students travel to attend FAIR, school staff there provide academic support during the school day because travel-time constraints prevent some students from attending FAIR's regular afterschool offerings. In addition to the twice-a-week after-school tutorial sessions offered by teachers, FAIR students get targeted intervention during exploratory periods at the end of the academic day. Struggling readers at Hoggard get intensive remedial services through the Learning Lab, with teachers pulling students for the lab during a targeted classroom period. This intervention is reportedly proving successful for many below-grade-level readers, with a large majority exiting the Learning Lab program within three years.

In these schools, students from diverse backgrounds and educational experiences receive adequate remediation and acceleration support to succeed in the inclusive classroom. Staff at Hoggard have made a small exception to their overall policy of heterogeneous grouping by offering advanced math classes at the fourth and fifth-grade levels. Underlying this decision, one staff member explains, is the belief that the addition of an honors-type math class gives those who take it an advantage in magnet middle schools without compromising access to rigorous curriculum for the school's most academically needy students. Commenting on her belief that all math courses at Hoggard are rigorous, one parent puts it this way: "Basically, you're either taking advanced math or advanced advanced math."

Figure 4. West Metro Education Program* Instructional Framework for Equitable Practices: Handout Used by FAIR Staff

In managing daily operations, magnet school staff need to monitor the special demands and needs of a diverse student body and consider various approaches for effectively addressing them. That may mean, for example, creating a busing schedule that enables students to remain on-site for after-school activities and tutoring. Or it may mean creating a policy that allows students with parental permission to go home with a friend on Friday, building support for diverse friendships to grow across the school community.

By addressing such challenges as they emerge, staff at the featured magnet schools have demonstrated that equity does not preclude excellence. For example, when Normal Park staff realized that their project-based curriculum favored students who had access to computers, expensive materials, and support at home, they created a policy requiring all major project displays to be completed by students at school, thus leveling the playing field for students. In fact, Normal Park has been particularly successful in closing the achievement gap between different socioeconomic groups. Between academic years 2003 and 2007, proficiency rates rose from 64 percent to 93 percent in reading and 62 percent to 98 percent in math for the subgroup of economically disadvantaged students.

Seeking to identify unintentionally inequitable practices is an additional challenge in a diverse school. At FAIR, a volunteer staff committee called the Equity Team meets regularly to check policies and practices against the goal of creating an environment where all students feel welcomed and successful. Believing that the manner in which the arts are presented influences how students view themselves, each other, and their potential for achievement, when principal Bennett first served as the school's artistic director, he set out to promote a broader, more inclusive understanding of the arts and those who contribute to them. To that end, Bennett recruited an African-American jazz musician, Bruce Henry, to work with the school and teach students about the legacy of African-American music. Breaking down stereotypes and making multicultural connections to art is considered a critical practice for FAIR staff, who require all students to demonstrate mastery of multiple art forms. The presence of the Equity Team ensures ongoing discussion about these issues and helps school staff maintain policies that support school goals, such as subsidizing the cost of musical instruments for students who need financial assistance.

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Last Modified: 09/28/2009