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Interest-Based Learning

The Magnet Program: From Integration to Innovation

An outgrowth of school integration in the '60s, magnet schools remain models of progressive education, featuring learning themes, diversity, innovative curriculum, rigor, and community involvement.

For many communities, the phrase "magnet school" calls up familiar images of an equitable learning environment, an interest-based curriculum, and progressive education in action. But this approach wasn't always a fixture of public education in the U.S. Here's how it came to be.

The history of magnet schools goes back to districts addressing the issues with desegregation in the 1960s. Following concerns over this method of achieving integration through bussing students to schools outside of their neighborhood, a more positive approach was born. It was based on the idea that students could desegregate themselves through choosing their new school by its educational theme, and at that school they would learn side by side with other students who shared a common interest. The Federal government offers Magnet Schools Assistance grants to districts as a way to promote this more positive school choice option that meets the unique needs of the learners who attend them. Nontraditional themes invite students to participate in a unique learning experience that benefits them and the community where the school is located.

Different Types of Magnet Programs

In a whole-school magnet, the entire school population is there by choice. These schools are chosen based on their racial isolation and available space for accommodating new students. Typically, students who attend whole-school magnets are from both within and outside of the school neighborhood. Magnet schools can have entrance criteria to ensure that all students there are attending for the same purpose. However, not all magnet schools have application criteria. Most give preference to the students who live within the attendance boundaries of the school. Many schools have a lottery system in place to make sure that all eligible students have a fair chance at getting in when the demand is greater than the available seats.

Some magnet schools operate on the school-within-a-school model. These are specialized programs sharing the same building as a traditional school. Most often, this model can be found at the secondary level. Some schools might also operate more than one magnet program on their campus to meet the needs of a variety of programs.

Theme, Diversity, and Innovation

What sets a magnet school apart from traditional schools is the theme. These can be as varied as STEM, STEAM, engineering, medical, technology, the arts, International Baccalaureate, leadership, career and technical academies, gifted and talented programs, and many more. It's the theme that attracts students to the school. Most magnet schools align their programs to career education along with increased rigor for all students. Kids are taught to "scream your theme" in order to infuse it throughout the school day.

Diversity is critical to the magnet school model. These schools were designed to serve a highly diverse group of students, which helps to prepare them for working with many types of people. They learn about different perspectives and how to cooperate when working on a project. This is one of the advantages of bringing students together from many different neighborhoods. A focus on cultural competency and multicultural environments is a standard for these schools.

Magnet schools present an ideal platform for innovative curriculum and professional development. They invite a strong focus on using a variety of learning styles when planning lessons to address all learners. Most magnet schools rely on project-based learning and increased hands-on opportunities. The staff is cohesive and focused on common goals. As new programs are created, the staff development is unique to their needs and may not align with the traditional schools. The focus for development of programs aligns with careers and student interests.

Standards, Rigor, and Community

Magnet schools have a consistent mission for academic excellence. This serves to attract more students and provide them with the skills for success. High standards for all students are established with clear learning programs.

In order to manage the implementation of the theme, magnet schools require high-quality instructional systems. These schoolwide systems are designed to prepare students for mastery of their school's theme. Each school has certain criteria that students meet to demonstrate their success at learning the program components crafted by the staff. Magnet school staff work as a team to ensure that these systems are clear and are followed.

Using the theme as a base, the magnet school seeks to enhance it by building family and community partnerships. For example, a museum magnet school may have several partnerships with local museums which can enhance students learning through in-class partnerships, field trips, or internships. Parent and community partnerships engage in the theme and help the school maximize student opportunities.

There are many new magnet schools cropping up across the country. Some communities offer school choice for the entire district, while others may have just a few options. Several different charter schools now operate like magnet schools using themes that attract students to attend them. Many families are grateful for these opportunities that allow their children to participate in an innovative and engaging program.

In the comments below, please tell us about the magnet schools in your community.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Walter Bracken STEAM Academy Elementary School.
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Gloria Mitchell's picture
Gloria Mitchell
Middle school teacher

I attended a magnet high school in Chicago in the 1980s. I find it disappointing that in Chicago and elsewhere, integration of the schools is no longer explicitly a goal of magnet programs, as it was when I was growing up. "Diversity" is a nice sentiment but doesn't solve the problem of schools in racially and socioeconomically isolated neighborhoods that get no support or recognition from the wider community or city. Rather than designing programs that let a few students in those neighborhoods "escape" to go elsewhere, school systems could devote the resources and expertise to allow the neighborhood schools, where resident students are guaranteed seats, to offer the innovative, well-designed, high-quality educational experiences this article describes. (And then, if there are extra spaces and the programs are attractive, offer those spaces to students from wealthier neighborhoods, as my school did.)

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