Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Hot Springs School District

Districtwide Enrollment 3,555
Magnet Enrollment 3,382 (95%)
Total Number of Schools 8
Number of Magnet Schools 6
District Size (in Square Miles) 36
Population Type Mid-size Central City

Hot Springs School District is an all-magnet district; its only nonmagnet schools are alternative schools serving court-involved or emotionally challenged youth. Yet Hot Springs' magnet program began only in 2000-01 after a federal district court ordered it as part of a multidistrict desegregation plan. Arkansas law says that students may attend school in other districts if their transfer will improve racial integration, and Hot Springs' magnet program serves students from 12 other districts along with its own. Regional superintendents from 7 of the 12 districts in this plan, along with the NAACP, had agreed to the magnet plan before the court made its orders official.

With its magnet program, Hot Springs also hoped to reverse a declining enrollment; it had been losing an average of more than 100 students a year since 1969 to private schools or to public schools in other districts. Since the inception of its magnet schools the district has gained students every year.

Support for the initial year of the magnet program came from state and local operating funds. But the following year, 2001-02, Hot Springs received a three-year, $6 million MSAP grant, which it used to renovate buildings, hire theme specialists and literacy coaches, and purchase supplies.

Hot Springs now has four magnet elementary schools, one magnet middle school, and one magnet high school. To implement the elementary magnets, the original elementary structure was altered: The district moved from having three pre-K-3 schools and one 4-5 school to four K-5 campuses. In its initial planning, Hot Springs considered establishing a K-12 theme based on language immersion, but abandoned the idea due to concern that it would be unable to find and keep enough staff with the requisite language skills.

The district's magnet themes are aligned vertically from the elementary level to the high school level (where they are called career academies). Within these themes are various strands across several grade levels. While the themes are essential to the magnet programs, the instructional focus on all campuses, driven by state academic standards, is twofold: mathematics and literacy. The themes, says the Hot Springs superintendent, are used to "build a better vehicle for learning" the core content.

Hot Springs Middle School houses three academies under one roof and organizes instruction using the "teaming" and "looping" concepts. Each academy consists of five core teachers who stay with the same students for students' entire middle school experience (from sixth to eighth grade). This creates small and supportive learning communities for the students and teachers.

Hot Springs High School sorts each of the four middle school academy themes into five "Career Academies": business/technology, communications/humanities/law, creative and performing arts, health sciences/human services, and mathematics/engineering/sciences.

The magnet school admissions policies in Hot Springs are influenced by the fact that the schools are part of an interdistrict program. Out-of-district and in-district applicants are given the same opportunity to enter a Hot Springs magnet school. However, priority is given to students returning to a school or a theme and to those who have siblings in the school to which they are applying. A computerized lottery has been established in the event that a grade level at a particular school has been over-subscribed, but the district has yet to use this system. Ninety-five percent of applicants are placed in their first choice school and, to date, no one has been placed in his or her third choice.

To support the teachers, students, and overall program, each school has a magnet coordinator responsible for maintaining the integrity of the theme and supporting the core curriculum. The magnet coordinators work with each other to align the programs and experiences from one campus to the next as students progress from elementary to high school. They also monitor students to ensure that they are in the right program and are successful. Magnet coordinators also assist with the application process and recruitment of students. An additional avenue of support for each campus is a math and/or literacy focus teacher who works with teachers and students to improve achievement in those areas. The district also has a magnet director, a position originally funded by the district's MSAP grant.

The district reports having made significant progress toward its goal of reducing and preventing minority group isolation in its schools. However, the district is aware of and is carefully monitoring two campuses that are at risk of racial isolation. The district also reports that since the inception of its magnet program, it has found some indicators of student achievement gains. For example, across the district results on benchmark assessments in mathematics for the 6th and 8th grades have improved markedly.

The achievement gap is also closing: Minority students made greater gains than non-minority students over a two-year period in four of five comparisons. This success gives the district another angle on increasing enrollment--it has opened Hot Springs schools to students throughout Garland County who are eligible to transfer under NCLB.

The magnet director identifies the following factors as keys to magnet program success thus far:

  • Use of data. Hot Springs has built greater district and school capacity to administer assessments and access data to drive instruction and professional development.

  • Identification of an especially appealing theme. The district has found its K-12 International Baccalaureate Program to be especially popular.

  • Research. Sending teachers, principals, counselors, and coordinators to visit successful magnet programs across the country has paid off in multiple ways.

  • Use of outside expertise. Seeking out specialists and other experts in particular magnet themes has helped ensure their success.

  • An all-magnet approach. Creating a district in which all schools have a magnet theme has infused energy and interest districtwide.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006