Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Houston Independent School District

Districtwide Enrollment 211,499
Magnet Enrollment 37,562 (18%)
Total Number of Schools 307
Number of Magnet Schools 108
District Size (in Square Miles) 301
Population Type Large Central City

In 1975, Houston Independent School District received a court order to desegregate. It decided early on to use a magnet program as its tool for desegregation. So, in the 1975-76 school year, the district opened 32 magnet schools. In 1980, Houston successfully petitioned to be declared unitary, thus ending the court mandate for desegregation. As part of this process, the Texas Education Agency accepted Houston's Voluntary Interdistrict Education Plan with the goal of educational enrichment for both urban and suburban students. Houston's magnet program was included as an integral part of this voluntary plan.

Houston now supports 54 magnet elementary schools, 28 magnet middle schools, and 27 magnet high schools. These magnets are tasked with meeting two objectives: to provide academic programs whose quality and special focus will attract students from across the district and to increase the percentage of students attending integrated schools. However, Houston does not use race as an admissions factor. Each magnet campus or theme may have different entrance requirements. Secondary campuses use a matrix that helps to determine students' qualifying status.

DeBakey High School for Health Professions, located in the renowned Texas Medical Center, is an example of a magnet with a unique theme strong enough to attract excellent students from all over this huge district. The school provides a rigorous and comprehensive pre-college program for students pursuing careers in medicine, health care, and the sciences. Students apply for admission to DeBakey and are selected based on past academic performance, nationally normed test scores, conduct, past attendance and merit. DeBakey students consistently perform above district and statewide averages on the SAT and ACT examinations.

The district oversees magnet schools through its Magnet Department, which operates under the Assistant Superintendent of School Support Services and Athletics. Staffed by a manager, a specialist, and an administrative assistant, this department assists schools in the design, development, implementation, and/or modification of new and established magnet themes. Department staff also facilitate curriculum development for specialized courses, coordinate staff development for magnet coordinators, and plan and implement awareness and recruitment activities. In addition, the department monitors the types of programs offered at various levels and locations and seeks to maintain a balance among a variety of programs offered and the needs expressed by the community.

To ensure quality, continuity of services, and on-site technical assistance, all magnet schools have the option to have a magnet coordinator placed on their campus. This position is paid for by site funds and is assigned at the discretion of the campus administrator. Magnet coordinators perform the following duties: develop magnet program goals and objectives; recruit students for the school's magnet program; maintain program quality; assist with curriculum development and/or revision; and assist with the magnet budget to maintain financial reports, requisitions, and inventory.

Houston received a grant from the Magnet Schools of America Program for the 1985-88 period. Since then, the district itself has funded the schools. Houston is highly decentralized and each school has control of its own budget, though magnet schools may apply to the district magnet office for additional funds for special projects. Many magnet schools also receive additional support from local businesses and other community sources. From the state's desegregation busing funds, Houston also receives approximately $19 million, which covers 50 percent of the district's transportation- related operating costs.

Students from outside the school district may attend Houston's magnet programs, but they are required to pay tuition equal to the difference in the cost to educate a student in Houston and the funding that is reimbursed by the state. Houston's magnet schools receive applications from all over the country and world, from people intending to relocate to Houston and who want their children to attend a magnet school. Its widespread appeal is a testament to the success of Houston's magnet program. Testing data routinely show magnet students outperforming other students in the district.

Administrators in Houston attribute their success with magnets to the following factors:

  • Magnet coordinator position. This on-campus position has as its first priority successful implementation of the magnet theme.

  • Regular meetings. The Magnet Department meets on a monthly basis with all magnet coordinators. The magnet coordinators also meet monthly in theme and grade-level clusters.

  • Commitment from top levels at district. School board members, superintendents, and central office staff are all supportive of magnet schools.

  • Formal, established policies and procedures. The district has adopted and monitors non-negotiable policies and procedures that support the continuity of services and opportunities at its magnet schools.

  • Rich variety of choices. Parents and students can choose from dozens of themes in 108 schools and can apply to as many programs as they wish.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006