Magnet schools an attractive concept for corridor districts

Cedar Rapids students could have magnet school option as early as fall 2014

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The elementary school at 355 18th St. SE in Cedar Rapids is often referred to as Johnson or Johnson Elementary School, but its formal name is Johnson School of the Arts.

A potential plan from the Cedar Rapids Community School District could bring that title into even bolder focus.

Trace Pickering, associate superintendent of the Cedar Rapids schools, believes the community is interested in maintaining the school.

“If we have a magnet of any kind next year, Johnson School of the Arts would be one on the list, certainly,” he said.

Pickering and other administrators are kicking around an idea to bring magnet schools to the Cedar Rapids Community School District as early as fall 2014. Magnet Schools of America, a professional organization, defines magnet schools as buildings of choice that align curriculum to a focused theme

Members of the district’s school board heard potential options for magnet schools – such as buildings centered around museum, entrepreneurship, arts and medical science and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) concepts, each offered through partnerships with area companies and organizations – during a work session in late September.

But Pickering said the conversation dates further back.

“The larger impetus is on how do we provide parents and kids as much choice as we possibly can, and how do we move toward 21st-century learning environments,” he said. “It certainly seems like a viable option to bring some of those things to our community.”

Administrators and school board members in the Iowa City Community School District also are continuing the conversation about hosting magnet schools. The concept has been attached to the district’s recent work with facilities-planning and a diversity plan that aims to reduce the variation between schools when it comes to the population of students receiving free and reduced-price lunches.

Lunch pricing is a measurement used to gauge poverty.

“Part of the issue is, and we talked about this with the (education) committee last year, in order to do magnet programming or charter programming effectively in a way that meets the community’s needs, you need to have excess space in your district,” Superintendent Stephen Murley said. “I think that there’s a real opportunity for us to utilize some of the resources that the community has that we may not otherwise be incorporating into our schools … . I think that there’s some opportunities for us that we haven’t necessarily taken full advantage of.”

As the National Center for Education Statistics notes, one motivator for the formation of magnet schools is “to attract students of different racial/ethnic backgrounds for the purpose of reducing, preventing or eliminating racial isolation (50 percent or more minority enrollment).”

In action

A 2012 NCES report shows that, among 31 states and the District of Columbia, the United States was home to 2,722 magnet institutions.

There is no master list of magnet buildings in the state because Iowa Code does not include a definition of magnet schools. But the University of Iowa’s Belin-Blank Center for Gifted Education bills Central Academy – a Des Moines Independent Community School District high school with seventh- and eighth-grade preparatory programs – as a magnet, and the school has not shied from the distinction.

“We’re really considered a regional academy because the state doesn’t really have a lot of rules or stipulations about magnet schools,” said Crista Carlile, the school’s supervisor.

Central Academy, which currently educates just more than 1,000 students, is open to learners throughout central Iowa who meet certain grade-point average and test score requirements or receive staff recommendations.

The acadmey does not focus on a particular subject or curricular theme, as traditional magnets do, but offers Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate coursework. Students can take as many classes as they want at the school, with some exclusively attending class there and others opting for a single course.

The school does not grant diplomas, have classes for vocal and instrumental music or host extracurricular sports teams and performing arts activities.

“The mission here is really academic excellence,” said Tom Forsgren, a Central Academy history teacher who also has taught at the district’s North High School, a non-magnet building. “We want to see how far the students can go, whereas at the home school (building) it’s more of a corralling.”

Counselor Kristin Hilton and Michael Link, a Central Academy math teacher who has been at the school since 1985, both said that staff and administrators have had to fight to maintain the program since its inception.

“We still have to justify our existence,” Hilton said.

Link, who came to the school in its second year, recalled that the programming began by adding a grade level each year until the current nine-through-12 model and preparatory academies.

“I think that was the smartest move they ever did,” Link said.

Link, Hilton and Forsgren all said that the school faces animosity at times from district teachers who don’t want to “lose” students to Central Academy. Carlile noted the same issue with other school districts, who have to grant students permission under a sharing agreement for them to attend Central Academy.

She estimated that fewer than 30 of Central Academy’s students are from other districts.

“That’s gone down because other districts have restricted,” she said.

Community input

In Eastern Iowa, Pickering and Murley said that there are no concrete plans as far as which schools in the Iowa City and Cedar Rapids districts would become magnet schools, around which themes they may be centered, how soon those schools would launch or how much it would cost to do so.

A critical step, both administrators agreed, is getting community input.

“We need to make sure that we have adequately assessed (parents’) interests before we go and offer programs,” Murley said.

Parents in the Cedar Rapids Community School District will get a chance to learn more about the magnet concept as well as voice their opinions “community conversation” events in October, November and December. The first is scheduled for 6:30 to 8 p.m., Tuesday, Oct. 29, at Kirkwood Community College’s Linn County Regional Center, 1770 Boyson Rd., Hiawatha.

“Our best hope would that, through a community conversation, we would discover which magnets captivated our community’s attention,” Pickering said. “That would be our best hope, that we land on something that people want and are willing to invest their time and dollars into delivering that to our kids.”

In addition, families can use the district’s Engage Cedar Rapids Schools website to weigh in.

Scott Gay, father of a fourth-grader who attends Johnson School for the Arts, said that he’d like to see more integration of the arts into classroom curriculum and is open to a magnet designation as one way to do it. The former art teacher and Johnson PTA member also spoke about other benefits the distinction could have.

“I see that, being a formal magnet school, it’ll get people more excited about our school and not just see Johnson as a school that struggles with test scores,” he said. “It helps Johnson shine again.

"It used to shine with its arts program 15 years ago when they first started it. I think there will be a chance for that to happen again.”

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