Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Hamilton County Schools

Districtwide Enrollment 40,655
Magnet Enrollment 6,038 (15%)
Total Number of Schools 80
Number of Magnet Schools 13
District Size (in Square Miles) 554
Population Type Urban Fringe of Mid-Size City

Hamilton began operating some magnet schools in the 1980s, but its program really began to flourish following the 1997 merger of the Hamilton County School System and the Chattanooga, Tennessee, City School System. Before the merger, the county district primarily served non-minority students, while the city system largely served minority students. The superintendent of the newly combined district championed creation of magnet schools to reduce, eliminate, or prevent minority group isolation within the schools.

To oversee its program, Hamilton created a district magnet office headed by the Director of Magnet Schools. The district further supports magnet schools through magnet resource facilitators. Some are specialists (e.g., technology coordinators, museum liaisons) who help teachers integrate particular theme-based content or instructional practices. There are also curriculum facilitators who assist teachers in developing standards-based instruction related to the magnet theme and who provide professional development opportunities.

Like many districts, Hamilton was able to grow its magnet program through the use of federal funds. A 1998 MSAP grant of $8.1 million allowed the district to open six new magnet schools, and a second MSAP grant of $6.5 million in 2001 supported creation of four additional magnets. Following expiration of the second grant in June 2004, the district was planning to sustain the existing magnet schools without federal dollars.

One way Hamilton has increased magnet school sustainability is by requiring parents whose child attends a magnet school outside their neighborhood to volunteer a minimum of 18 hours a year at school. The result is increased parent involvement--a key to the success of magnet schools in general--and fiscal savings. Hamilton has also developed several successful community partnerships, which provide funding and other support, and the district encourages individual magnet school principals to forge community partnerships as well.

Many Hamilton magnet schools have typical themes, such as Fine Arts, Math and Science, and Technology. But several magnets are organized around specific pedagogies, such as the two Paideia schools, which use unique approaches to student learning, including a focus on seminar discussions and coaching of academic skills.

Beyond their efforts to attract a representative student population, Hamilton magnet schools maintain their commitment to diversity by grouping students heterogeneously and setting a high standard of achievement for all students. Students with special needs and students with records of bad behavior are neither screened out in the application process nor separated in the classrooms.

The admissions process for Hamilton's magnet schools varies by school. Two of the original magnet schools are open to students from throughout the district and offer admission on a first-come, first-served basis. The 6-12-grade fine arts school requires student auditions. Students with good audition results receive preference; any remaining seats are then assigned using the lottery system the district has developed for its other magnet schools. The work-site schools offer priority to students whose parents work in the designated zones around the schools, as well as to neighborhood students wishing to attend. If more students apply than there are seats available, the district uses the lottery.

In the lottery, an applicant pool is determined for each grade level at each school. The Information Services office analyzes each pool to see how its socioeconomic breakdown compares to the district's overall student population and then uses a mathematical formula to award extra lottery numbers to students from underrepresented groups. For example, in the 2003-04 school year, 46 percent of district students qualified for free and reduced lunch. If only 40 percent of the applicant pool for a particular grade that year qualified for free and reduced lunch, those applicants may have received one or two extra lottery numbers to maintain a balance. The district may also award extra numbers to suburban applicants to maintain a balance between students who live within the city limits and those who do not. Finally, the district saves about 15 percent of available seats at each school for siblings of current students.

The lottery system has been critical in helping ensure that the magnet schools meet their desegregation goals. For example, in 1998, Barger Academy had a minority population of 96 percent; since becoming a magnet school, minority students account for 76 percent of the student body. Likewise, Chattanooga High School Center for the Creative Arts has gone from having a minority population of 71 percent in 1998 to 40 percent in 2004.

The magnet program is also helping the district turn around low-performing schools and meet the requirements of NCLB. Three low-performing high schools have recently been targeted for inclusion in the magnet program to improve the quality of teaching and instruction. The district's experience with magnets suggests that parents will support this approach. Many middle-class students who once attended private schools are now returning to the public schools, the district reports.

The district attributes the success of its magnet school program to several factors:

  • The right personnel. For its magnet schools, the district looks for leaders who are passionate, committed, hard working, and capable of establishing a culture of collaboration.

  • A focus on professional development. District leaders look for multiple ways to support teachers' professional development.

  • Marketing and recruiting. The district and its schools use multiple avenues to recruit students. The district also contracts with a marketing firm to teach principals marketing techniques and to help them conduct focus groups and surveys.

  • Magnet-savvy board members. The district sees school board support as pivotal in the success of the magnet program.

  • Learning from other magnets. Principals, magnet resource personnel, and community members visit other schools to get ideas and to solicit help in planning.

  • Parent volunteer requirement. The district requires parents to volunteer, and schools offer creative ways to volunteer, including weekend events.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006