Innovations in Education: Creating Successful Magnet School Programs
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Starting a Magnet Program

While fostering student diversity as a path to equitable education remains the prime reason districts start a magnet program, as already noted, magnet schools have matured in practice to become much more than remedial tools for desegregation. Among other things, well-developed and locally supported magnets can, in Dentler's words, "provide courses of study that barely existed before the magnet's establishment," "offer districts local demonstrations of quality that may then be emulated by regular schools," and, "contribute substantially to a district's attainment of full racial and ethnic equity."10

Putting together an attractive instructional program that can accomplish these aims at an individual school is a complex, multistep undertaking. It requires creating a focused vision and program mission that will drive a robust implementation plan and sustain commitment. It requires dealing with issues of funds and transportation, selecting strong leaders and quality staff willing to work long hours, getting people in the community involved, and recruiting resources.

Some districts with long-standing programs have created a structure that enables individual school communities (i.e., some combination of principal, teachers, parents, students, and other site-specific stakeholders) to transform their school into a magnet. But a district initiating a magnet program with multiple schools will profit from centralizing the planning process in a "magnet office." In developing their magnet school programs, most of the districts highlighted here also created a magnet school research task force to get things started.

A good first step for such planning groups is to learn from others. By researching successful magnet programs and schools, by finding out what themes have been particularly successful elsewhere, a district-and any school that wishes to become a magnet-can often avoid having to "reinvent the wheel." It can also be helpful to obtain copies of magnet program or magnet school plans from other districts, if possible, or consult with members of their magnet teams.

Magnet Schools of America11 suggests that a comprehensive magnet school plan include vision and mission statements, educational goals, objectives and strategies, curriculum or theme design, implementation steps, marketing and recruitment strategies, budget and funding plans, timelines, policies, professional development plans, and monitoring and evaluation plans.

Districts can also benefit from contacting superintendents, magnet specialists, and magnet principals in districts of similar size and circumstances who can share lessons learned about which themes have worked best and why, how to set up data infrastructures, parent communication processes, and transportation. Hamilton sent staff and other stakeholders to magnet schools in other districts, both near and far, to get ideas and solicit help in planning their own magnet schools.

Choose appealing and sustainable themes

How do you go about identifying magnet themes that will each attract substantial numbers of students of different racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds and that, collectively, will help create what one magnet program director calls "a workable system of choice, instructional success, and thriving community partnerships, with the added benefit of racially integrated schools"? Whatever the catalyst for a district magnet program-whether resistance to integration, the need to improve poorly performing schools, parent dissatisfaction with existing choices, declining enrollments, or anything else-the search for effective themes should always start in the same way: with research. It's a process of looking and listening, says one district administrator: "Look at the data -city and school demographics, school performance, available capacity, teacher turnover, etc.-to find focal points. Then listen to parents, specifically underrepresented parents." Good ideas can also flow from existing advisory groups and networks, chambers of commerce, local colleges and universities, magnet school experts, and other districts that operate magnet schools. But if parents aren't on board, individual magnet schools and a district's magnet program might take off, but they won't go anywhere. Get parents interested, then follow through by delivering high-quality educational programs to build and sustain that initial interest and excitement.

Prior to starting its magnet program in 2000, Hot Springs had been hemorrhaging students at an average rate of about 100 a year since 1969, its enrollment dropping from 6,000 to 2,800. Magnets have helped reverse that trend. In 2003, the district gained 134 students. Today Hot Springs serves 3,555 students, of which some 3,300 attend a magnet school. Key to its success are themes embraced by parents. The district initially consulted with a magnet school expert-the former director of the nonprofit Magnet Schools of America-to identify distinctive curricular or instructional themes that had been successful in other districts. But knowing what has worked in another community doesn't guarantee local success. To be more certain that its magnet schools would appeal to its hometown audience, Hot Springs surveyed local elementary school parents to gauge their relative interest in the various themes proposed by the consultant. Survey results guided the final decisions.

"Start with the customer," advises one magnet program administrator. In fact, districts studied for this guide have typically sought broad community input, through surveys-some, like Hot Springs, offering a particular list of themes to react to, others asking more open-ended questions-and through interviews and focus groups. During a year of research and planning for its magnet program, Duval surveyed every parent in the county, asking what types of programs they were interested in for their children and what factors might prompt them to move their children away from their neighborhood school. Duval used survey results, along with other information, to create school themes; it also used the results to inform its marketing effort for the program.

In Montclair, which had tried and abandoned several desegregation plans before embracing the magnet concept, the initial survey yielded some pretty straightforward results. Polling parents to determine what type of school would serve their needs showed that residents in the city's predominantly minority south end wanted a "back to basics" theme, while parents in the north end, most of whom were European American, wanted a "gifted and talented" focus. The district responded by placing a gifted and talented school in the south end to draw white students to a school that had been populated mostly by students of color, and placing a "back to basics" program in the north end to attract youngsters to what had been a predominantly white school. Eventually, the entire district went the magnet route, creating an array of choices. (See figure 3 for Montclair's descriptions of its magnet elementary schools.)

In picking themes, parent and student interest is just part of the picture. Identifying a curricular or instructional magnet that, as one administrator says, "will make them want to come" is of little use if a district doesn't have the wherewithal, including teacher interest and expertise, to sustain the theme and use it to raise student achievement. A central question in setting up a magnet school must always be, can you deliver? Answering that question requires looking internally at interest and resources. Hot Springs gave up plans to open a language school when it became clear it would have a difficult time finding enough qualified teachers in the district. It's also important to assess and recruit expertise in the community. In setting up their museum magnet schools, both Hamilton and Wake County profited from museum staff who worked with school staff to develop and flesh out their curriculum.

However winning a chosen curricular theme-ecological futures and global issues, fine arts, or science and technology-in every case that theme must be grounded in a school vision and mission with educational goals and objectives, a set of shared values, and guiding principles that shape the entire program and help keep it on track.

Select and develop quality staff

Research reveals that while the magnet theme is important to the success and viability of a school, the more critical factor is having teachers, administrators, and board members committed to the theme, bringing "conviction, enthusiasm, and readiness to contribute."12 All six districts have a district-level administrator focused either completely on the magnet program or on magnet schools as part of a broader choice program. Each also has an internal decision-making structure to coordinate and support the magnet effort. In one district the prime mover is the superintendent. But however the particular district's infrastructure is set up to support magnets, all involved in these magnet programs agree that success depends to a great extent on choosing the right principal for each school: a strong instructional leader who is passionate, committed, and hard working, who can cultivate teacher buy-in and ownership, establishing a culture of collaboration, while reaching out to the community. "That relationship with the community is so critical, and to build it, you've got to believe in what you're doing," says one district administrator. Parents, in fact, often list the principal as a major reason for choosing a given magnet school.

Figure 3. Montclair Elementary School Guide

In many, although not all, instances, magnet schools are developed to take the place of an existing, fully staffed neighborhood school. In the process, the district often reconstitutes the neighborhood school and requires the existing principal and staff to reapply if they want to work at the magnet. The principal at a new magnet school is typically afforded a measure of autonomy not found in traditional schools, given the freedom he or she needs to recruit and hire teachers-disregarding seniority, for example-who are a good match to the school's theme and programmatic philosophy, including having the requisite motivation, commitment, and knowledge to fully implement the theme.

To achieve the innovative goals of magnets, teachers in turn often have more autonomy than their local counterparts in shaping curriculum and instruction, a collective effort that requires adequate planning time. The aim in Hot Springs, says an administrator, is to have "school staffs that are integrated, experienced, committed, capable, and willing to spend extra time with students, and who believe that all children can learn to high standards." Hamilton principals are quick to credit teachers for the success of the program. Says one principal, "I try to empower teachers, to get good people dedicated to students and our philosophy, and just let them go." A Montclair administrator says of the magnet teachers, "If you throw an idea at them they run with it." In these schools, leadership is not the role solely of the principal; leadership functions are clearly expected from other staff.

In any new school, a principal and teachers are likely to need to spend more time planning and coordinating than do their counterparts at a more established school. Add in the need to hone expertise in a particular theme and to align thematic standards with required state standards, and the time demands grow even more intense. Yet districts included in this study do not offer financial incentives for staff to participate in these schools. The attraction seems to be the intrinsic value in the freedom created by the program theme-that and, in some cases, the rare opportunity to share personal enthusiasm or expertise with students and fellow educators on a daily basis. Magnet schools have no difficulty recruiting teacher applicants. Teachers in Hamilton County drive over 40 miles, some from neighboring Georgia, to teach there. One principal recently received 39 applications for two openings, despite the fact that in many instances, and especially in a school's start-up phase, magnet teachers work longer hours. As one teacher expressed it, "For magnet teachers, it's a passion, not a job." Some districts allow schools to involve teachers themselves in the hiring process, an important step toward building the cohesive culture essential for success.

Cultivate community resources

The process of getting people involved in a magnet school begins in the early stages of creating the curricular or instructional focus. Community partners not only serve as excellent resources in developing the magnet theme, as did the staff at Hamilton's and Wake's various museums, but they can become indispensable in implementing the theme, offering time, equipment, space, services, and money. Wake created a number of university-themed magnet schools that are set up to collaborate with North Carolina State's 10 colleges. One of the magnet middle schools is actually located on a campus. Across all of the university-theme schools, students, parents, and teachers have frequent opportunities to engage with college faculty and students and to use college facilities. Similarly, Wake's museum magnet school partners with several area museums that provide students with opportunities to learn from interacting with curators and setting up exhibits with museum personnel. As in Hamilton, local museum staff members also work with teachers, reviewing the standard curriculum to see how art, science, or history exhibits might be integrated into it. In fact, staff at a small museum that focuses on African American history from the Civil War to civil rights developed a curriculum that the school plans to use for its eighth-graders.

One Hot Springs magnet is an "Explorer School," one of 50 in the country that is closely connected to the National Aeronautic and Space Administration (NASA). NASA supports the school's aerospace education and environmental studies theme by offering opportunities and resources that would be beyond the reach of most magnet schools, let alone most traditional schools. For example, students get to attend space camp in Alabama.

Getting people involved early also includes recruiting parents. Latch on to key parents to assist and serve as active supporters. One Duval parent advises finding the "worker-bee parents."

A key role of magnet school leaders, then, is to engage the community, recruit partners, and bring in community resources. Says one district administrator, "Especially for magnets, the principal has to have a passion for the theme and a willingness to be out and about 'selling' the program, to be highly interactive with parents and local businesses." Hamilton has found that principals who can't do this are not effective leaders. Principals who can are invaluable. One magnet school principal in Hamilton solicited the involvement of a local Best Buy store, which initially provided a $2,400 grant to buy digital cameras for the school, which has a math, science, and technology theme. The partnership has grown from there, with Best Buy employees now volunteering to help conduct seminars for the principal's book club, in which students are invited to read common books and attend a seminar and party each month. The store also has donated CD players to use as incentives for students.

In turn, principals must pass this entrepreneurial, marketing mind-set on to their staff. This principal told her teachers, "Anyone who walks in the building has something to offer, and it's our job to find out what that is." The challenge for a district, of course, is to identify and recruit such leaders for their magnet schools.

Define special roles

A school's "magnet" function requires giving serious thought and definition to the special positions needed to carry out its theme. Depending on the theme (e.g., performing arts, aeronautical science), the school might require on-site experts. But some of the nontraditional tasks necessary in operating magnet schools, such as marketing, can be decentralized to individual schools, centralized at the district level, or shared between district and sites. As a district's magnet program grows, so may the need for more specialized roles.

Overall, districts and school sites agree that having someone serve as magnet coordinator in each school is important, whether that individual serves as a fulltime coordinator or is a lead teacher who does parttime coordination work. There is growing recognition in education that if principals, in general, are to be effective instructional leaders, other leadership and administrative responsibilities traditionally expected of them must be shared. This is especially true for magnet school principals who, in addition to their general administrative responsibilities, must ensure that their school's theme-focused curriculum aligns with state academic standards, must market the school to parents and the community, and must generate supportive partnerships. A magnet coordinator can help with marketing, transportation issues, volunteer coordination, parent communication and other tasks that are especially important in magnet schools.

Figure 4. Duval Memorandum of Agreement for Magnet Lead Teacher (Page 1 of 3)

Memorandum of Agreement

This Memorandum of Agreement intends to define the partnership to be entered into between a Magnet Lead Teacher and the Duval County Public Schools. The purpose of this agreement is to further the successful implementation of magnet schools and programs in Duval County Public Schools. This document describes the scope of the work and specific performance goals that the person selected to fill the role of a Magnet Lead Teacher may elect to achieve. Any magnet school is eligible to participate in this agreement.

General Statement of the Scope of the Work

The Magnet Lead Teacher position is intended to provide support and assistance to the principal of a magnet school. It is recognized that the Magnet Lead Teacher's primary area of responsibility is in the area of marketing and recruitment, but that other skills related to curriculum development and magnet program implementation will be incorporated into the expectations of the role. As such, during the time that is dedicated to the fulfillment of responsibilities related to this contract, the Magnet Lead Teacher's role will include the following overall tasks:

  1. Marketing
    The Magnet Lead Teacher prepares and executes a marketing plan to inform the public about the specific magnet program at the school. The marketing plan includes specific goals, tasks, dates, and responsibilities. It should include all district-initiated marketing efforts, as well as though tailored to the specific needs of the magnet school.

  2. Recruitment
    The Magnet Lead Teacher executes the marketing plan so that students are encouraged to enroll in the program.

  3. Communication
    The Magnet Lead Teacher coordinated communication about magnet program activities, both within the school community and with the Magnet Office. Communication channels include presentations at faculty meetings, publication of a magnet newsletter, briefings to parent groups, service on the School Improvement Team and/or School Advisory Council and attendance at district-level Magnet Lead Teacher meetings.

  4. Program Development/Management
    The Magnet Lead Teacher assists in the development of understanding of the program, works to strengthen its curriculum, and assist the principal in its management. This aspect of the lead teacher role is to be shared with the principal an other staff, and though it is not the major component for compensation, it may be critical to the health of the program.

In Hot Springs, magnet coordinators at the various schools work with each other to help ensure thematic coherence as students move from one campus up to the next, progressing from elementary school through high school. They also assist with the student application and recruitment process. Duval's magnet coordinator oversees application logistics. Hot Springs High School, whose themes are arranged in "Career Clusters," has a technical education coordinator who focuses solely on student interests in careers, job shadowing, and other career-related activities. Each Duval magnet school identifies a magnet lead teacher who commits to assisting the principal in four areas: marketing, recruitment, communication, and program development and management. These expectations are formalized and detailed in a Memorandum of Agreement signed by the teacher and the district (see figure 4).

Build district support

Districts stress that sustaining quality leadership and staff commitment at magnet schools requires a culture of support from the highest levels of the district. "One of the big reasons we're able to be so successful," says one principal, "is that we're in a school system that really supports the magnet program. When I was hired the superintendent let us reconstitute the school so I was able to hand pick the staff, which is incredible." In each of the districts in this guide the school board's strong commitment, even if it has had to be cultivated, is cited as critical to magnet success. Montclair's school board, for example, has demonstrated support by making the very difficult decision to eliminate the pre-kindergarten program in order to free space and funds to help preserve the magnet program. In Houston, the school board has adopted specific magnet school policies, including such details as entrance, probation, and exit procedures.

Summary for Starting a Magnet Program

  • Choose appealing and sustainable themes
  • Select and develop quality staff
  • Cultivate community resources
  • Define special roles
  • Build district support

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Last Modified: 08/08/2006