Magnet schools make a comeback

Districts rejuvenate specialized, themed programs to promote student success
By: | Issue: May, 2015
April 22, 2015

At Nashville’s Pearl-Cohn Entertainment Magnet High School, a female student distressed by the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, wrote rap lyrics that became the song “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot.”

With the help of her teachers and classmatesÑand Pearl-Cohn’s recording studioÑthe student, Queen McElrath, starred in a music video that has since been viewed 124,000 times on the school’s YouTube channel. In a television-style interview with another student, McElrath says: “I decided to write this song so that we could unite, so that young people could have a voice.”

Pearl-Cohn’s Relentless Music Group, which produced the song, is thought to be the first and only student-run record label in the nation, thanks to a partnership with Warner Music Nashville. As part of the school’s entertainment focus, students can take classes in video editing and, for instance, solve Algebra 2 problems that relate to audio engineering.

Many teachers at the school, part of Metro Nashville Public Schools, have either worked in entertainment or trained with industry professionals.

Magnet schools have made a big comeback in America’s education system, offering curricula that span the spectrumÑfrom medicine to the arts to language immersion. The revitalized programs provide plenty of hands-on experience, while the academic themes are infused into traditional classes such as math and English.

Nationwide, roughly 4,000 magnet schools serve 2.6 million students, according to federal data analyzed by Magnet Schools of America, a professional association. Some magnets operate as individual schools, while others operate as an academic program within a building. And district leaders say waiting lists at some magnet programs prove more families would like to attend but can’t because of limitations.

Studies have found magnet programs can improve performance. Syracuse University, University of Connecticut and Educational Testing Service researchers studied Connecticut magnet programs during the 2005-06 year, calling them a “promising model” to address racial and economic segregation.

“Magnets have left their childhood years and they’ve now grown up,” says Todd Mann, executive director of Magnet Schools of America. “They’re coming into their own and maturing.”

Teachers train with talent

As part of desegregation efforts in the late 1960s and early 70s, magnet schools were designed to attract students with a mix of incomes, ethnicities and backgrounds to lower-performing schoolsÑoften in challenged urban areas. Now, magnet schools are undergoing a renaissance, offering students a wider array of more specialized programs.

Museum magnets

Hands-on projects are the focus of two “museum” magnet schools in Metro Nashville Public Schools: Churchwell Elementary School and John Early Middle School.

The schools partner with local museums, and students design exhibits that are displayed in the school. “They’re able to teach other people about” student projects, says spokesman Joe Bass.

A recent fifth-grade project at John Early challenged students to identify ways to improve the community. The initiatives ranged from covering bus shelters to building a new community center. Students then developed a plan of action.

One group lobbied Mayor Karl Dean for sidewalks in northern Nashville, and also appealed to local churches with presentations. By the following year, the city had begun building the sidewalksÑwith the mayor crediting students for inspiration.

The fifth-graders were honored for creating a successful civic engagement project, and one of the students, Aniyah Porter, presented her group’s work to members of Congress in Washington, D.C., as part of the Civics Renewal Network’s Close Up Washington Program.

Many schools select themes that reflect community passions and local industries, such as Pearl-Cohn, given Nashville’s nickname as “Music City USA.”

A recording studio, two editing suites and a control room for producing and recording music have all been donated to Pearl-Cohn. CDs are sold at the school. And students may earn software certifications in ProTools to record and edit music, and Final Cut Pro to create videos.

“They created this record label where students are signing talent and auditioning music,” says Beverley Flatt, program manager for the Academies of Nashville academic programs that operate in 13 high schools, including two magnets.

“Teacher team externships” are key to Metro Nashville’s effort. The program pairs instructors with industry professionals for three days during the summer. In the case of Pearl-Cohn, an English teacher might pair with a lyricist, and later incorporate songwriting into classroom instruction.

At Nashville’s Stratford STEM Magnet High School, teachers may work with cancer researchers to enhance biology or even ethics lessonsÑsuch as examining a 1950s case when a woman’s cells were used for cancer research without her knowledge.

District leaders say they also have sought teachers with industry experience. Those hired through connections with local businesses have, for instance, brought TV station or recording industry experience to classrooms. “There was a lot of targeted recruiting because we were trying to find the right teacher for the right job,” Flatt says.

Focus on foreign language

North Carolina’s international business and banking industry inspired Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools to create immersion magnet programs in French, German, Spanish, Chinese and Japanese. The program has launched in eighth grade and will continue into high school next year.

The district uses an international employment agency to recruit teachers who are certified in both English and their native language. “Not only are they teaching math, but they’re also teaching their culture,” says Natasha Thompson, director of magnet programs and school redesign.

District leaders have found the Spanish program is especially important to Hispanic immigrants who want their children to be literate and well-versed in their native and newly adopted languages and cultures.

Like many districts, Charlotte-Mecklenburg was mindful of geography when establishing its magnet programs. Administrators created the same program at multiple schools throughout the community.

The effort appears to be paying off. About 70 percent of magnet students are on grade level in reading, compared to 56 percent at neighborhood schools, Thompson says.

Setting students up for success

The popularity and success of magnet programs is prompting expansionÑsuch as in Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which is becoming an “all choice” district. About 56 percent of Miami-Dade’s 356,000 students select their school and about 57,000 attend magnets.

A range of magnet themes gives students the chance to pursue interests in biomedical engineering, business management, hospitality and tourism, among others. “We have to help students find their hook,” and get them motivated by personal interests, says Robert Strickland, administrative director of school choice and parental options. “Now students are able to latch on and make it relevant, so what they are learning is helping them do what they’re interested in doing.”

Many districts are promoting their programs more aggressively. Nashville recently hired a full-time recruiter, and Miami-Dade runs advertisements on television, social media, at movie theaters and in newspapers.

For equity purposes, Miami-Dade determines placement by a lottery system. In addition, the district requires only a 2.0 GPA for certain programs, which is a lower threshold than what has been set by some other districts. At the performing arts magnet, GPA is not even checked, although an audition is required. Having minimum requirements ensures students are prepared for the work and gives all students access, Strickland says. “At the same time, it allows them to know that we’re not setting them up for failure,” he says.

Igniting imagination

Student interest and the prospect of high-demand, high-paying careers have encouraged many magnet schools to turn to the STEM subjects.

Such a focus has raised student achievement at the Walter Bracken STEAM Academy, which serves K5 in the Clark County School District in Las Vegas. The school has risen from the bottom 5 percent of the state’s performers to the top 5 percent, says Principal Kathleen Decker.

Decker attributes the success to the autonomy the district has given her to run the magnet school, and to make decisions on budget, schedules and personnel. The school purchased iPads for classrooms and hired certified tutors. And the school saves money for projects by not having an assistant principal.

Students also have planted garden beds at school with part-time help from a farmer. In science and math lessons, students learn to cook what they’ve grown in the gardens.

Other magnets have taken innovative approaches to building designs. And in Nashville, as part of a $20 million renovation, Stratford created common spaces to encourage student collaboration, an approach often seen at colleges and universities. The furniture can be moved and configured into different settingsÑdesks can be combined to form tables, and rolling chairs have built-in outlets for plugging in laptops.

“That’s the power behind magnet schools,” says John Laughner, legislative and communications manager for Magnet Schools of America. “It’s igniting the imagination of districts.”

Mackenzie Ryan is a freelance writer based in Iowa.