WORK WITH PARENTS & THE COMMUNITY
Creating and Sustaining Successful K–8 Magnet
September 2008
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FAIR (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School)
Crystal, Minn.

 

Selected Characteristics of Magnet School and Host Districta
Magnet School: FAIR Host District: West Metro Education Program (includes Minneapolis and 10 suburbs)b
Year Established as Magnet 2000 Population Typec Interdistrict; Large City & Suburbs
Theme Leadership Size 832 square miles
Grades 4-8 MSAPd Funded Not applicable
Enrollment 508 students Enrollment 996 magnet students out of 996 total
Student Ethnicity 68% White
23% African-American
5% Asian
3% Hispanic
1% Native American
Student Ethnicity
(grades K-12)
50% White
42% African-American
4% Asian
3% Hispanic
1% Native American
Special Education 10% Special Education 9%
Free or Reduced-price Lunch 18% Free or Reduced-price Lunch 33%
English Language Learners 0% English Language Learners 0%

a All data drawn from State Report Card for school year 2006-07.
b Each member district is allotted a proportional amount of seats at FAIR, based on a total enrollment figure of the participating WMEP districts. For example, a district with 10,000 students-10% of the total population of 100,000-would get 10% of the available spots at FAIR, or 56 seats. These seats must be divided evenly across 5 grade levels. Minneapolis provides the largest percentage of FAIR students: 45%.
c From National Center for Education Statistics Common Core of Data for the school year 2005-06, http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/districtsearch
d Magnet Schools Assistance program

Soon after entering FAIR (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School), you can see a range of fine arts in action. In one hallway, a group of girls rehearses a dance and spoken-word piece, while the instructor coaches another team inside a studio. Upstairs, seventh-grade students create watercolor images from Greek mythology as some of their classmates work at potter's wheels. The school's approach, says principal Kevin Bennett, does not simply offer "a smattering of arts activities," but emphasizes depth and rigor.

FAIR is an interdistrict elementary and middle school magnet serving the Minneapolis metropolitan area. Housed in a new building designed for fine arts instruction, it is operated by West Metro Education Program (WMEP), a voluntary consortium of 11 school districts formed in 1989 to promote desegregation. Attracting a diverse population through its unique curriculum, FAIR emphasizes intercultural learning for its diverse student body. Art, history, politics, and science go hand-in-hand, with teachers and students making connections between what's learned from one class to another.

Founding and Early Challenges

In 1998, WMEP opened its first school, the K-12 InterDistrict Downtown School (IDDS) in the heart of Minneapolis, intended to attract white suburban students into the city. A few years later, due to Minnesota's desegregation policies, funds became available to create an interdistrict magnet school, and FAIR was born in suburban Crystal as an arts magnet serving grades 4 to 8. A new facility was built expressly for FAIR, and it includes ample rehearsal, creation, and performance space to accommodate the rigorous arts program that produces over 20 public performances each school year.

After overcoming some early organizational issues, WMEP has refocused its mission to include an explicit goal of increasing equity and eliminating the racial achievement gap. And in addition to operating two interdistrict magnet schools, WMEP manages a Choice Is Yours program that provides low-income families in Minneapolis the opportunity to send their children to a participating suburban school. Superintendent Dan Jett sees the WMEP schools as living examples of how high expectations and commitment can help educators increase equity and reduce achievement gaps.

Implementing a Successful Program

All of FAIR's students, regardless of prior experience, participate in the arts and are encouraged to take risks and explore new avenues for artistic expression. For example, students in theater class who do not enjoy stage acting can find a niche as technicians in charge of set design or lighting. All students get to delve deeply into arts areas that capture their interest as they progress through the grades. Fourth- and fifth-graders rotate through all six areas of the fine arts program, then in the sixth grade select four arts for more intensive study. Seventh- and eighth-graders choose one year-long and two semester-long fine arts courses.

Resident artists from the community provide professional-level arts instruction that helps students master fine arts standards. Three choirs and three bands engage students in sectional and full ensemble rehearsals in addition to their weekly small groups or individual lessons for specific instruments.

To help foster an intercultural learning environment, issues of race, diversity, and equity are intentionally included in the curriculum. Students discuss how racial issues affect daily life. By providing opportunities for students to talk about serious social issues, FAIR teachers aim to create an environment in which all members of the school learn about the intersection of race and achievement. "It helps to talk about racism," reflects one African-American student, "instead of pretending it's not there but still participating in it."

Teachers in every classroom are expected to tap into multiple learning modalities, drawing upon students' experiences with visual and auditory expression from their art courses. Teachers find diverse entry points for students to access subject matter. One fifth-grader, for example, demonstrates her mastery of the 50 states by singing a song that helped her memorize them. And a middle school student uses a comic book format to show his ability to summarize The Odyssey. Allowing students to demonstrate their knowledge in various ways also helps cultivate an inclusive environment in which students are not "pigeon-holed in one area and can continue to grow in the areas that they are strong in," one teacher explains. Taking this approach to the next level, beginning in the 2007-08 school year, the school will have an Individual Learning Plan for every student. The plan is modeled after the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) that outlines strengths, areas of need, and modifications required for students in special education. For students with academic, social, or emotional concerns, the school's Child Study Team brings classroom teachers together with a social worker, school psychologist, and nurse to support the students. Classroom teachers are paid to provide after-school remedial support and homework assistance for students performing below grade level. Students scoring less than 40 percent on standardized tests attend the WMEP-sponsored Summer Scholar Institute three hours a day for six weeks. At FAIR, principal Bennett focuses on developing positive relationships with students and staff, by modeling the behaviors that he and FAIR staff want to be an integral part of the school culture. He welcomes students each morning, exchanging words of greeting or jokes as they start their day. During his first year at the school, the number of out-of-school suspensions—a total of 146, with a disproportionate amount given to African-American male students—was a major concern that needed to be addressed immediately. "When I hear a teacher say a student is being 'defiant,' I immediately think there's a breakdown in communication," Bennett says. With only 29 suspensions in the 2006-07 school year, the school's culture has shifted. "Teachers are reflecting on practice and have a willingness to grow, understand, and learn," he says.

Establishing Systems for Sustainability

Principal Bennett works together with the school's director of teaching, Datrica Chukwu, to provide ongoing support for teachers through classroom observations with feedback. A 25- point checklist of steps toward achieving equity in the school serves as a framework for these instructional walk-throughs, helping teachers reflect on their classroom practices (see fig. 4 on p. 25). The framework includes criteria related to student behavior, relevant curricula, and strategies for reaching standards. Chukwu disaggregates student achievement data and works with staff to analyze the information by student cohort, achievement gap data, areas of growth, and areas of need. She says her approach from day one has been to collect data, make it useful, and take action to improve it.

To monitor progress, students take the Minnesota Comprehensive Assessment—Series II (MCAII), which is required by NCLB in reading, mathematics, and writing for grades 3-8. They also take a range of interim assessments. Chukwu reorganized the assessment schedule from having a major assessment only once every fall to including a spring test (with the option for a third assessment in the winter) to maximize the data's usefulness to staff. The assessment data are used to identify students struggling with particular strands and to help target skill-building needs. Data also are used to inform policy changes or professional development needs.

FAIR's strong commitment to the arts enables it to attract a wide range of arts organizations to serve as community partners, leveraging valuable resources and rich experiences for its students. Stages Theater serves as the school's resident theater company, providing theater residencies, classroom instruction, and theater production support unparalleled in traditional public school settings (see fig. 7 on p. 39). This collaboration has helped develop other relationships with the regional arts community. Musician Larry Long, for example, engages FAIR students in an intergenerational history and music curriculum, "Elders'Wisdom, Children's Song," which brings community mentors into the classroom to inspire a student-created song.

The school has seen increased student achievement. FAIR students in every racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic subgroup have consistently outperformed students at the district and state level in math and reading. Test scores also show a narrowing of the achievement gap between racial and ethnic groups within the school. From 2003-05, for example, the gap in fifth-grade reading scores fell from 30 to 7 percentage points.

Sustaining Success at FAIR (Fine Arts Interdisciplinary Resource School): Milestones

As part of a unique interdistrict collaborative, FAIR staff were charged with implementing a strong fine arts school at the same time as an effective interdistrict infrastructure was being developed. Today, FAIR serves as a model for executing a vision for integration as well as for closing the achievement gap.

2000-01

West Metro Education Program (WMEP), a voluntary interdistrict consortium, founds its second magnet, FAIR. WMEP hires FAIR teachers on loan from member districts to participate in its experimental school model.

New building constructed for arts theme with studios, labs, and theaters. Design includes distinct wings and a common teacher workspace for grade-level teams.

FAIR opens with 398 students in grades 4-7 under principal Mamie Merrifield and artistic director Dennis Jewett; grade 8 added the following year.

Partnerships initiated with art organizations, including resident theater group.

2002-03

FAIR begins partnership with National Urban Alliance for Effective Education (NUA) on a literacy initiative that has been sustained for five years.

2003-04

Education research consultants conduct an evaluation of FAIR and its impact on student achievement and intercultural contact.

2004-05

WMEP becomes a fully operational district and superintendent Dan Jett is hired. One transition year given to FAIR teachers, who must resign from their original districts and sign on as WMEP employees.

Enrollment peaks at almost 560 students in grades 4-8.

Artistic director Mary Bussman named principal. Kevin Bennett hired as artistic director, and his role expanded to include assistant principal.

FAIR honored with a Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Creative Ticket National School of Distinction Award.

2005-06

Artistic director Bennett becomes FAIR's third principal.

FAIR hires nine new teachers due to departures after transition to a WMEP contract.

Staff initiative on student discipline reduces out-of-school suspensions by 40 percent.

FAIR establishes Equity Team to address achievement disparities.

2006-07

WMEP, in conjunction with FAIR, develops its Equity and Anti-Racism Plan to close the achievement gap. State testing data shows FAIR has nearly closed the gap in grades 5-7.

Staff continue to reduce out-of-school suspensions, now down 66 percent from 2004.

WMEP staff evaluate student assignment policies in light of declining interdistrict enrollments: some member districts have waiting lists, others have openings; all districts are in period of declining enrollment with schools competing for fewer students.

 


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Last Modified: 09/28/2009