Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Magnet schools gained prominence in education in the 1970s as a tool for achieving voluntary desegregation in lieu of forced busing. An early study of magnet schools sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education1 found that magnet schools were developed first in large urban school districts seeking to reduce racial isolation in their schools through voluntary means rather than with mandatory student assignment. The educational programs at these magnet schools were modeled on well-established specialty schools that offered advanced programs to selected students, such as Bronx School of Science, Boston Latin School, and Lane Tech in Chicago. Early magnet school curricular programs mirrored specialty school themes such as mathematics, science, and the performing arts. But magnet school programs were designed to be different in one very important way-magnet school enrollment was driven by student choice based on interest rather than selection of students by testing.

Some 30 years later, many districts continue to utilize magnet schools to reduce minority group isolation; however, in the intervening years, the purposes of magnet schools have continued to evolve and expand. When the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program was first authorized in 1985 its intent was twofold: reduce, eliminate, or prevent minority group isolation and provide instruction in magnet schools that would substantially strengthen students' knowledge and skills. Subsequently, expectations for magnet schools have broadened. Today, school districts are using them to accomplish a range of important and related purposes: enhancing student learning and narrowing the achievement gap, giving public school parents more choice in their child's education experience, and incubating innovative educational methods and practices that can raise the bar for all schools.

Magnet schools may be especially appealing to districts with schools in need of improvement under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which specifically acknowledges their value for the purposes stated above.2 For local education agencies contemplating adoption or expansion of this powerful education option, this guide presents experiences and lessons learned from six districts with successful magnet programs. (Basic statistics about these districts appear in figure 1.)

The theory behind magnet schools as a desegregation tool is simple: Create a school so distinctive and appealing- so magnetic-that it will draw a diverse range of families from throughout the community eager to enroll their children even if it means having them bused to a different and, perhaps, distant neighborhood. To do so, the school must offer an educational option- a specialty-that is not available in other area schools. Early magnet school research8 identified five common magnet school themes-the fine, applied, or performing arts; the sciences; social studies occupations; general academics; and traditional and fundamental schools. But a look across district magnet programs today reveals a much wider variety of curricular specialties and educational approaches reflecting the idiosyncratic interests and resources of their communities. Among the curricular themes or instructional approaches currently found at magnet schools are aerospace education, communications, culinary arts, environmental science, international studies, International Baccalaureate, language immersion, law enforcement, military science, Montessori, and Paideia.

Figure 1. Demographics of Six Profiled School Districts

In recent decades, the school desegregation picture has become more complex. The number of school districts still implementing court-required desegregation plans has been declining, and court cases and policy decisions have narrowed districts' ability to use race as a factor in student assignment decisions. Instead, socioeconomic status has become important in defining student diversity. In some districts, minority students have become the majority across all public schools, and many urban districts have been losing increasing numbers of middle and upper-class students of all races and ethnicities to private and parochial schools or to surrounding suburbs. Yet throughout this period, magnets have remained a useful tool for reducing, eliminating or preventing racial isolation in schools. (Figure 2 provides information on managing enrollment.)


Two important tools in a magnet program assignment system, often used in conjunction with one another, are attendance zones and a lottery system. The best way to understand magnet school assignment is to start by thinking of a traditional neighborhood school system, in which each school has an attendance area or "walk zone" and students who live within it are automatically assigned to that school. These students are sometimes called "zone" or "base" students. This guide will generally refer to them as neighborhood students. Magnet schools differ in that many have no attendance zone and if they do have one, it controls only a portion of a school's enrollment.

At a magnet with no attendance zone, all who want to attend must apply and applicants can live anywhere in the district. (Some district magnet programs also accept applicants from outside the district.) At a magnet school that has an attendance zone, some portion of the school's enrollment is reserved for students who live in the zone, with the remaining seats open to applicants from outside the neighborhood.

Decisions about whether to create a magnet school with no attendance zone or, instead, to give preference to students who live in an attendance zone with a lottery for other openings are tied to district enrollment goals, location of the school, and neighborhood interest. If a new magnet is planned for a largely low-income Hispanic neighborhood that wants its children to attend the school, the district might use an attendance zone preference so the school can serve neighborhood families while avoiding ethnic or socioeconomic isolation.

A district's system for choosing from among magnet school applicants is its other tool for managing magnet enrollment. Many magnet schools have their own application criteria. Performing arts schools, for example, tend to require student auditions. But districts need a system for choosing among qualified applicants when their number exceeds available magnet seats. Most magnet programs use a lottery system. In a random lottery system, the district's marketing efforts are intended to attract an applicant pool for each school that is representative of community demographics. In such circumstances, a random drawing of names or assigned numbers will result in an equally representative student enrollment. If a district isn't convinced that its applicant pool for a given school is representative, it might use a weighted lottery, which gives added weight (i.e., an extra lottery number or two) to applicants who represent characteristics sought in the enrollment mix, such as students from low-income families. Recent court decisions have limited the use of race in student assignment to attain diversity, making clear, for example, that race-neutral approaches must be seriously considered first.

Beyond desegregation

A more diverse student population is just the beginning of what magnets can accomplish because, as one researcher has noted, magnet schools are the "offspring" not just of "the search for racial and ethnic equity in public education" but also of the "quest for improved teaching and learning."9 Their theme-based approach promotes many of the factors associated with effective schools, chiefly, innovation in program and practice, staff and curricular coherence, increased parent and community involvement, and greater student engagement. In the best of magnet schools, this adds up to higher student achievement.

Magnet schools can also promote healthy competition among district schools. Faced with the prospect of losing students to magnets, many neighborhood schools examine the competition to understand the attraction while, at the same time, examining their own program to see how they might improve it. The superintendent of one magnet district highlighted in this guide says the belief that "our school is as good as yours" has had a "ripple effect across the district," with traditional schools pushing themselves harder. Some adopt or adapt magnet school principles and practices to better serve their own students. As this happens, magnets, in turn, must ratchet up their own efforts in order to remain distinctive. It is little wonder, then, that many districts that began their magnet program as part of a required or voluntary desegregation effort have come to see it-and expand it-as part of a larger school improvement effort.

While student diversity is still "desirable and sought" in Houston (Texas) Independent School District's extensive magnet program, its manager notes that Houston's "primary concern" today is having "quality programs that will engage students in the learning process, leading to higher achievement. Because students disengage from learning long before they drop out of school, we are very interested in providing focused programs that will keep them engaged in learning, keep them in school, and prepare them for their future."

To that end, Houston allows individual schools to apply to become magnets, theorizing that when a magnet is "home grown"-conceived and planned by school staff, parents and students, and other stakeholders- engagement is almost a given and, regardless of its enrollment composition, the school contributes to the reduction of racial isolation in the long run. "Segregation in Houston is primarily the result of economics or a language barrier," the administrator explains. "The solution-or at least a partial solution-is increased educational opportunities, the very thing our magnet programs are trying to provide."

Hamilton County (Tennessee) Schools, which serves Chattanooga and surrounding areas, offers an example of how magnets are sometimes used to serve multiple goals. Coinciding with and in support of a citydriven urban renewal effort, the district recently built two magnet schools in low-income neighborhoods of color adjacent to Chattanooga's downtown business center and converted two older downtown neighborhood schools into magnets. All forms of diversity remain a primary goal for the program, and each of the downtown magnets has its own attendance zone, designed to ensure that about half its students are from the neighborhood. But the schools embody some other aims as well.

Like many districts serving urban areas, Hamilton had been steadily losing students to local parochial and private schools and to the surrounding suburbs. Its downtown magnet themes were conceived to recapture some of these students. Two of the magnet schools are museum schools (a K-5 and a 6-8) that work closely with the area's seven museums. Of the other two, one focuses on classical studies (literature, art, history, architecture, and music) and the other bases its instruction on Howard Gardner's theory of multiple intelligences.

In addition to adopting themes thought to be attractive to middle and upper-income-level families, the district has labeled these magnet programs as "worksite" schools, giving added weight in its lottery to applicants whose parents work in the targeted area. The hope is that the opportunity to have their children nearby during the work day will be an added attraction for suburban commuters who like the idea of spending more time with their children as they commute and want to be involved with their children's school, an experience that would be out of reach, literally, if their children attended a traditional neighborhood school. In this vision, schools and their students benefit from greater volunteerism, the district benefits by stemming the outward flow of higher socioeconomic families, and the downtown benefits from workers who, with their children nearby, are more likely to spend time and money in the area.

Magnet terminology

Any general discussion about magnet schools requires some clarification of terminology. In addition to different terms being used in different districts, the same terms are sometimes used to mean slightly different things from one district to another. The term magnet program, for example, is used in a variety of very different ways. For discussion's sake, this guide will generally use magnet program to refer to the district-level infrastructure for managing magnet schools and, when the context makes it clear, to a magnet school's instructional program. It will use the terms magnet school and magnets for all schools or instructional programs that have a unique theme or focus conceived to attract students and parents for the primary goal of creating a representative student population.

Case study sites and methodology

The six districts profiled in this guide are Duval County Public Schools, Florida; Hamilton County Schools, Tennessee; Hot Springs School District, Arkansas; Houston Independent School District, Texas; Montclair Public Schools, New Jersey; and Wake County Public School System, North Carolina. Appendix A presents a narrative summary of each district's context and programs.

This guide is based on a study that was informed by a literature review, interviews with both researchers and educators, and the input of an Advisory Panel consisting of researchers, associations leaders, and educators who work with schools, districts, and states on magnet implementation. The six districts studied and highlighted here were selected from a larger set of 16 possible sites. The exploratory, descriptive approach used to examine the magnet programs in these districts is adapted from the four-phase benchmarking process used by the American Productivity and Quality Center (see appendix B for further details). This guide is adapted from the full research report and also incorporates information from research literature and other sources. Results from specific district practices, district rationales for what they did, patterns across districts, and common sense, along with the initial framework, led to the themes and actions highlighted in this guide.

This descriptive research process suggests promising practices- ways to do things that others have found helpful or lessons they have learned about what not to do-and practical "how-to" guidance. This is not the kind of experimental research that can yield valid causal claims about what works. Readers should judge for themselves the merits of these practices, based on their understanding of why they should work, how they fit the local context, and what happens when they actually try them.

This guide is organized around five action areas: getting started, promoting the program, making it easy for parents, fully implementing the program, and evaluating and continually improving.

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006