Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School
Raleigh, N.C.


Selected Characteristics of Magnet School and Host Districta
Magnet School: A.B. Combs Host District: Wake County
Year Established as Magnet 1999 Population Typeb Large City
Theme Leadership Size 832 square miles
Grades K-5 MSAPc Funded FY 1987-88;
1991-97; 2001-06
Enrollment 809 students Enrollment 29,273 magnet students out of 128,070 total
Student Ethnicity 49% White
22% African-American
15% Hispanic
10% Asian
4% Multiracial
Student Ethnicity
(grades K-5)
52% White
25% African-American
13% Hispanic
5% Asian
5% Multiracial
Special Education 15% Special Education 13%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch 39% Free or Reduced-price Lunch 32%
English Language Learners 13% English Language Learners 8%

a All data self-reported by school or district for school year 2006-07.
b From National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data for the school year 2005-06,
c Magnet Schools Assistance program

Every morning, students at A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School repeat the school's vision statement: "To live, to love, to learn, to leave a legacy." Combining a commitment to academic excellence with developing character—responsibility, respect, integrity, compassion—Combs staff work to help students become leaders who strive to do their personal best. This dual concept of leadership and character development has helped make Combs an award-winning magnet school boasting state proficiency rates as high as 95 percent and a waiting list in the hundreds.

Located in Raleigh, near North Carolina State University, Combs is a county-draw magnet that serves and reflects the diversity of the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS). The school's focus has proved compelling to families of all backgrounds. And its student diversity is a selling point: Combs has no majority race, enrolling large numbers of African-American, white, Hispanic, Indian, and Chinese students, in addition to smaller numbers of Middle Eastern, Korean, and Southeast Asian students. For founding principal Muriel Summers the appeal is clear: "What served Martin Luther King? Mother Theresa? Nelson Mandela? It really boiled down to character, the core of a person."

Founding and Early Challenges

A perfect storm of events led to Combs' establishment as a magnet school. Prior to 1999, Combs was an extended-day magnet whose success in raising proficiency rates—from 67 percent to 84 percent in a single year—had helped the school earn a National Blue Ribbon award from the U.S. Department of Education. But the school lacked a clear vision for sustaining that success. In 1999, an opportunity came in the form of a crisis: The district ordered the school to reinvent its theme—which was no longer attractive enough to maintain enrollment—or forfeit its magnet status. School leaders had a week to come up with a unique theme with no additional funds for implementation.

Stakeholders from the community—college professors, businesspeople, and parents—offered a consistent response when asked what they would like to see in a reinvented school. Recalls Summers, "It was always, 'We want our children to be caring, hard working, compassionate, make good choices, to grow up and give back.' It really was all about character." By the end of the week, the school had its new theme. As the first elementary school in the country to focus on helping children from all backgrounds become leaders, Combs evolved dramatically from an underenrolled, stagnating school at risk of losing its magnet status to an exemplary, nationally recognized school.

Implementing a Successful Program

Daily classroom life incorporates ideas from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (e.g., being proactive, putting first things first, and thinking win-win) as students learn to take responsibility for tasks, organize their time, and solve group conflicts. Students also use the late Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige's quality performance principles— including a "Plan, Do, Study, Act" process for managing continuous improvement—for data-based problem-solving and effective collaboration. The focus is on developing habits so that students internalize the strategies and can apply these ideas to complex problems and real-life situations at school, at home, or later in college and on the job.

A central component of the leadership model involves setting personal and academic goals.

Each student is expected to track her or his performance in data notebooks and on charts. As one student says, "The data notebook helps me keep on stride. When I make mistakes, I know that I still have goals to reach." Students struggling with the regular curriculum join the Combs Achievers, an after-school program that targets over 100 students considered to be at academic risk.

The redesign of the Combs magnet theme forced staff to think about equity in a different way, which principal Summers calls "a huge paradigm shift." She recalls how the staff initially thought it would be "wonderful" to get 90 percent of the students scoring at or above grade level. "Then," she says, "we got to 95 percent. There was a pivotal point when we said that was no longer acceptable, not until we are at 100 percent."

In selecting new teachers, interviews probe beyond teaching experience to get at what Summers calls "a teacher's character." As she explains, "We didn't hire anybody that we wouldn't want our own children to have as their teacher." An administrative team meets on a regular basis to share responsibilities and use the team's collective expertise to address school needs. "We try not to fix things for people," Summers says. "We feel that growth occurs when people come up with their own solutions."

Establishing Systems for Sustainability

The school's unique focus is designed with the future in mind; with an innovative and timeless theme, the leadership model is sustainable no matter what curricular demands or state mandates come along. Summers has found that businesspeople, government officials, and parents of all backgrounds find the mission and vision compelling.

From the beginning, the business community has been involved in shaping the school theme, and members of the outside community have readily helped with school projects. A diverse range of artists, gardeners, and business leaders donate resources and services. The school also partners with North Carolina State University's College of Engineering through a program called RAMP-UP (Recognizing Accelerated Mathematics Potential in Underrepresented People). Laura Bottomley, a professor at the university and a former Combs parent, helped forge the collaboration when she began volunteering in fifth-grade classrooms as a science lab teacher. RAMP-UP places engineering graduate and undergraduate students in Combs classrooms three times a week to run hands-on, inquiry-based mathematics activities intended to cultivate an excitement for learning mathematics.

Combs attracts entrepreneurial parents to support the school. Parent Marshall Brain, the creator of the Web site HowStuffWorks, offers his services as a science consultant by filming experiments and posting the video clips on You-Tube for students to access and replicate at home. Principal Summers promotes communication among families and values their contributions. Every month, she hosts an in-person Parent Chat to get input, share information, and have an open forum for parent concerns and questions. There is a 24-hour return call policy for all staff members receiving parent phone calls, and all grade-level teams are expected to respond promptly to family survey data with a letter summarizing the results and outlining next steps for improvement.

The goal of 100-percent proficiency energizes staff to continuously monitor their progress with students and to target interventions. Teachers enter assessment data weekly into eMARC, a Web-based data collection tool supported by WCPSS to record student achievement. Disaggregated end-of-grade results reflect the school's progress toward closing the achievement gap. This additional district support for creating, scoring, and disaggregating frequent assessments is expected to provide timely data for teachers who currently devote a large amount of time and resources to such assessments.

Combs has garnered positive recognition both locally and nationally. In 2003, it was designated a National School of Character by the Character Education Partnership in Washington, D.C., for its program in social, ethical, and academic development. In 2006, Magnet Schools of America recognized Combs as the top magnet school in the country with its Dr. Ronald P. Simpson Distinguished Merit Award. The North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has repeatedly given Combs a North Carolina School of Excellence Award as part of the state's accountability initiative to improve student achievement and reward excellence. And in 2007, the school was honored by the National Association of State Title I Directors' Distinguished School Program for narrowing the achievement gap.

Sustaining Success at A.B. Combs Leadership Magnet Elementary School: Milestones

A.B. Combs staff revamped their extended-day magnet school in the face of declining enrollment. Drawing from district resources and input from community stakeholders, they pioneered an innovative leadership model that continues to receive national and international recognition.


A.B. Combs staff told to reinvent extended-day magnet with unique theme. No additional funding provided for conversion.

Principal and assistant principal consult community members and draw upon existing professional development to determine new leadership theme.

Summer training for teachers on Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People through school district.

Grade-level team leaders pilot use of former Secretary of Commerce Malcolm Baldrige's quality performance principles in classrooms.

School opens in fall as nation's first elementary leadership school.


Partnership with Stephen Covey to get professional development training for all Combs staff.


Begins to host Leadership Days to showcase school program to outside visitors.

Staff synthesize Covey and Baldrige principles to structure students' use of data notebooks that chart their academic progress.


Kids' Club after-school program established. Designed to serve non-English-speaking families and students.


Funding for Kids' Club ends. YMCA partnership developed to continue after-school program.


Partnership with University of North Carolina for RAMP-UP,* a math and science education program that places engineering graduate and undergraduate students in classrooms as mentors.


Staff provide technical support to develop the leadership theme at three other Wake County public schools.

A.B. Combs recognized as the top magnet school by the Magnet Schools of America.


A.B. Combs recognized as a National Title I Distinguished School.

Staff establish an International Leadership Exchange Program with schools in Japan.

* Recognizing Accelerated Mathematics Potential in Underrepresented People

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Last Modified: 09/28/2009