Reasons to convert a traditional school to a magnet vary, according to Melissa Jordan, the executive director of a seven-district collaborative in the northwest metro.
Magnet schools, she said, can provide more educational options, promote diversity, offer unique hands-on learning opportunities, keep students from open enrolling outside the district and create cross-district opportunities. But in order to implement a magnet school, Jordan recommends districts take time to consider which model to use, gather staff input and tour existing magnet schools.
“It takes training and professional development, and learning how to develop those themes in the content area,” Jordan said. “It really is a cultural shift in how you do things in the building … Three to five years is what it takes to really have a true magnet school up and running.”
Almost a year ago, the Faribault School Board began talking about transitioning Roosevelt Elementary into a magnet school to attract new students and retain existing ones, and offer unique programming at a time when the district's enrollment is plummeting.
The coronavirus pandemic threw a wrench into the planning process, pushing conversations about distance learning and health guidelines to the fore. But while the magnet school conversation has slowed, Superintendent Todd Sesker said the administration will continue to explore options to determine the best fit for Faribault Public Schools.
In October, the board discussed possible magnet school strands such as STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), a community school model, or an international school model with a possible language immersion components.
“Our next steps will be to go out and talk to staff and get feedback from them to see where they think we should be going and ideas they have on creating a new and innovative school for kids,” Sesker said. “We want to eventually survey parents once we get ideas of what staff would support.”
Sesker hopes the conversation can pick up speed again in January with a goal of having a theme chosen by February and a K-5 or K-8 magnet school ready to go by fall 2021.
Northwest Suburban Integration School District (NWSISD), which Jordan serves, is a collaborative of seven school districts in the northwest metro: Anoka-Hennepin Schools, Brooklyn Center Community Schools, Buffalo-Hanover-Montrose Schools, Independent School District 728 (serving Elk River, Otsego, Rogers and Zimmerman), Fridley Public Schools, Osseo Area Schools and Rockford Area Schools.
Based on community survey results, NWSISD selected the strands of STEM/STEAM (STEAM includes Art as a component), the arts and International Baccalaureate as options for the schools it serves.
STEM focuses on the sciences with different themes integrated into the curriculum. For example, one school might focus on aerospace as an underlying theme, or horticulture, agriculture or engineering. The common thread is that STEM magnet schools use a project-based learning model.
Arts magnet schools focus on visionary or performing arts, and like the STEM magnet schools, each one might pick an underlying theme within that strand.
For the International Baccalaureate magnet schools, staff must complete specific training on how to teach the curriculum. IB magnet schools prepare students to be responsible world citizens and offer an international curriculum emphasizing cultures, world languages, and changing technology.
Jordan said most of the NWSISD school districts have transitioned existing staff to their new magnet schools, but some districts opt to hire new staff.
“Sometimes it’s hard because it is a shift in your professional career, but I’ve seen schools really transform and come together as a staff,” Jordan said.
Anyone can apply to join an NWSISD magnet school as long as they live within one of the school districts, and there are no specific academic requirements. If the number of applicants exceeds the number of available seats, NWSISD conducts a lottery. Special education and English Learner programs are also integrated into the magnet schools, so the project-based learning is inclusive to all students.
Cross-curriculum and collaboration
One NWSISD school is Rogers Elementary STEM Magnet School, part of Independent School District 728. Initially, only one classroom per third, fourth and fifth grades followed the magnet school model. Over a three-year development process, more and more staff were trained, allowing the entire school to become a STEM magnet school in fall 2011.
The STEM Magnet School is one of two public elementary schools in Rogers, and while there is a mandated pool of students that attends the magnet, there are usually a few seats available to students from other schools in or outside of the district.
Jill Waldron, curriculum integration coordinator for Rogers Elementary STEM Magnet School, said the only difference between the STEM Magnet School and Hassan Elementary, the other elementary school in Rogers, is the integration of STEM curriculum into the entire school day. That means teachers apply cross-curriculum lessons for each subject. Teachers might integrate math into science lessons, for example, or even use measuring and other math skills in the schoolyard garden.
“One of things we get the most comments on about our kids is just their ability to work together and collaborate,” Waldron said. “Many of our STEM lessons and things they’re doing require them to work in small groups, so they develop great communication skills, and they’re great at sharing ideas.”
Melissa Jordan, NWSISD executive director, sent her children to Salk Middle Pre-Engineering Magnet School in Elk River. What stood out to her is that the school focused on History Day as an all-school activity as well as science fair projects. In terms of doing research, Jordan recalls her children being well-prepared for high school after graduating from Salk Middle School.
“They were ready to just hit the road running with research projects, creating bibliographies, and using primary and secondary sources,” Jordan said.
According to Rogers, students at Rogers Elementary are "pretty creative. With the engineering lessons that start that young, they get good at thinking outside the box. A lot of people want to send kids to STEM schools because they have more opportunities for hands-on activities, breaking outside that tradition where they’re sitting in class with a pencil and paper.”
Although COVID-19 conditions may not create the ideal opportunity to visit other magnet school sites in person, Jordan encourages districts planning for magnet schools to do just that when the time is right.
“There are so many great magnet schools across the state of Minnesota; you don’t have to travel across the U.S.,” Jordan said. “I find magnet schools are very congenial and want to share the highs and lows, dos and don'ts. Be inspired and see what’s out there, and create the right magnet school for your district.”
Waldron agreed: “I think it is a good idea for whoever is making decisions to tour some of these schools, just to get a better feel for what the programs might look like.”