Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Montclair Public Schools

Districtwide Enrollment 6,340
Magnet Enrollment 4,600 (73%)
Total Number of Schools 11
Number of Magnet Schools 10
District Size (in Square Miles) 6.25
Population Type Urban Fringe of Large City

The Montclair Public Schools has over 30 years of experience in the planning and implementation of magnet schools. Like so many other districts, Montclair began its program as a desegregation solution. Since then, Montclair has become essentially an all-magnet district, providing a high level of choice for Montclair families.

The district's one comprehensive high school is not considered a magnet school although it has programs to complement all middle school magnet themes. It has developed several Small Learning Communities that have specific themes and function in accordance with magnet philosophy. The Small Learning Communities were recently selected by the U.S. Department of Education as a national model and were awarded a federal grant.

Montclair's Assistant Superintendent and the Assistant to the Superintendent share responsibility for conducting elementary and middle school orientations annually to provide parents with information about registration procedures, districtwide curriculum and academic standards, and the specific unique features of each school's magnet theme. Montclair also has a Parent Coordinator who spearheads the provision of a variety of parent classes throughout the school year. The district attributes a great deal of its success to the high level of parental involvement in the schools.

When parents register their children for school in Montclair, they must rank their school selection choices in order of preference from first to last choice. This ranking provides more flexibility for district staff in student placement in the event that a child is not assigned to either the first or second choice of a magnet school. Ultimately, student assignment to an individual magnet school is predicated upon space availability. All of the magnet schools are popular and draw considerable interest from Montclair's parents. The fact that all of the magnet schools are popular helps alleviate the possibility of having an inordinate number of requests for one school, requests that cannot be accommodated because of lack of space. Special consideration is given to students who already have a sibling enrolled in a particular school or who have special education or English-as-a-second-language needs. After these considerations have been addressed, a computerized lottery system is utilized to fill remaining seats in each school.

The district has received federal funding for magnet programs linked to school integration efforts since the 1970s. Over the years, Montclair has received three multiyear federal grants from the highly competitive Magnet Schools Assistance Program. The last grant awarded in 1998 provided $1.8 million to improve the overall quality of the three middle schools over a three-year period.

The Montclair Board of Education has demonstrated support for the magnet program by providing adequate budgets in the absence of federal funding. This is not an easy task. The Montclair Board of Education was forced to eliminate a popular pre-kindergarten program due to lack of space and rising program costs that were negatively impacting the K-12 program.

The township does not have an abundance of ratables to ease the property taxes of Montclair residents. Approximately 86 percent of school budget costs are derived from local taxes. Despite the considerable tax burden, Montclair parents have lobbied for and are supportive of the school budget.

The local community also assists in providing financial support for the magnet schools. In addition to local nonprofit organizations, such as the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence, the district is fortunate to have several resident philanthropists who have donated considerable funds to the schools for a variety of academic programs, as well as the renovation of athletics facilities.

Although significant national attention is now focused on the "achievement gap," Montclair has been focused on this issue for 15 years or more. A 1989 independent evaluation of its magnet program found that racial balance had been attained but that the achievement of students of color was considerably lower than that of white students in the district. As the only charter member from New Jersey in the national Minority Student Achievement Network, Montclair has been focusing considerable attention on closing this achievement gap and is attaining incremental success. The gap persists, but is smaller in many cases. Although six of Montclair's eleven schools are Title I schools, none of them have been designated as low performing under NCLB. Overall, 93 percent of the district's high school graduates attend college, including 87 percent of its African American students.

Montclair attributes the success of its magnet program to five key factors:

  • High-quality teachers and administrators. Montclair has made it a priority to have well-chosen, well-prepared principals working with an integrated staff of well-trained, committed teachers. It is revisiting its approach to teacher supervision and evaluation, recognizing that teachers with different levels of experience (e.g., a veteran master teacher vs. a newcomer) require different kinds of support and development.

  • Rigorous standards-based curriculum. To support a partnership among all stakeholders in the system, Montclair disseminates a series of brochures that outline what every student is expected to know and be able to do at each grade level in core subjects.

  • Continuous parental involvement. The district has successfully marshaled parent support to help in the classroom and in other ways on-site, as well as to raise money through direct fund-raising and through lobbying for public funds. In addition to identifying key contacts and explaining question and complaint procedures, Montclair's "Parent's/ Caregiver's Quick Guide to Navigating Through the School System" lists ways in which parents can get involved in their child's education.

  • Voluntary (not mandatory) busing. Montclair offers bus transportation to elementary students who live 1.25 miles or more from school, middle-grade students who live 1.5 miles or more from school, and high school students who live more than 2.5 miles away. Each bus route is designed to take only 18-20 minutes to complete. Over the past several years the district has been able to bus students who live one mile from the school they attend.

  • Staggered school opening and dismissal schedules. This approach helps ensure that students don't miss instructional times due to the complex busing schedule.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006