Some of Jefferson County Public Schools’s magnet schools aren’t running like magnet schools, according to a review released this week.
To address the issue, JCPS needs to define its vision for magnet school—those with specialty programs such as aerospace or performing arts, the review said.
The magnet school review suggests:
- Some program met magnet school performance standards.
- Others should be “phased out” or placed on a one-year probation.
- A central application process for students to get into magnets, and then a random draw for spots in the schools.
- More professional development for teachers and administrators to ensure schools are hitting on well-defined “themes.”
- New ways to market magnet schools.
For other programs, however, the review recommends they be “phased out” or placed on one-year probation. The review panel also recommended that some programs be redeveloped to replicate curriculum already in place at other schools in the district. Or they should be transitioned into traditional schools.
How Magnet Schools Fared
“Magnet schools should have a defined theme and that theme should be taught throughout the day,” said Scott Thomas, executive director of Magnet Schools of America.
That’s not the case everywhere.
For example, the review recommended that Rutherford Elementary—a visual arts magnet in the Beechmont neighborhood—be put on a one-year probation and get intensive magnet assistance be provided because it had “no viable theme,” according to the recommendation’s notes.
Atherton High’s education and human services magnets were also recommended for phasing out because they are duplicative, the review panel said.
Meanwhile, Cane Run Elementary’s environmental studies program was singled out as a “great” magnet program that is “gaining steam,” the review panel said, noting that the program should work on diversity.
Most of Manual High’s magnets were deemed industry standards but in need of equipment, but its high school/university program was recommended to be phased out in favor of a program at Western High.
The recommendations focused on decreasing the high rates of students who leave magnet programs, making the magnet school selection process more transparent and encouraging professional development.
JCPS asked for the review to see if its magnet programs do what they’re intended to do, have a diversity in students and are actually improving student achievement.
The reviewer, Magnet Schools of America, is a Washington, D.C.-based group that sets standards for magnet programs.
The district has “some really good schools, and we want to keep those,” Thomas said.
“But some of those are by luck,” he added. “You’ve had really good people in there that have figured it out—without support, without training, without other professional networks.”
One issue is money.
The “district doesn’t seem to have the resources available for the training that is needed,” Crystal Moore, a member of the Magnet Schools of America review team.
Still, Thomas said professional development would allow teachers and administrators to better integrate themes into the entire school day.
“You have some incredible teachers, no question,” Thomas said. “But they need the opportunity to collaborate. You’ve got people trying really hard, but they are struggling. They’re doing the best they can with what they have.
By having the opportunity to share ideas with teachers and administrators from successful magnet programs across the nation, JCPS faculties will be able to discover new ways to establish the best practices for promoting student success, Thomas said.
“Magnet schools should not be operating in isolation,” Thomas said. ”You’ve got to scream the theme, really exhuming that they are in a specific program.”
Admissions Processes Questioned
Thomas said magnet schools officials must avoid considering too quickly that a student “is not the right fit.”
“Especially at the elementary and middle school levels,” he said.
Discouraging students and projecting the feeling they might not “fit in” to the program leads to higher exiting-out numbers and lower enrollment numbers.
Thomas said district leaders must develop new ways to market magnet schools.
“Schools don’t have equitable resources outside of the school district,” he said. “There are big discrepancies in what schools are able to do in terms of raising money outside of what the district supports.”
He added that more needs to be done to attract students who speak English as a second language.
It was recommended that JCPS create a centralized application process that would make a selection criteria available to parents and students prior to when they submit an application. Then instill a random lottery for all schools, Magnet Schools of America officials said.
“That is viewed as the best practice nationally,” Thomas said.
“There is a great deal of time spent on student selection. Is this the most effective use of time?”
Competition ‘Fierce,’ ‘Not Productive’
Bob Rodosky, JCPS’s chief of data management, planning and program evaluation, said the current practice of explanation when a student is turned down from a magnet school is “bad customer service.”
And many parents “worry” and “fear” for their children attending another school, Moore said.
“There is a noted anxiety about not getting into magnets,” Thomas said.
Some schools have an elitism that tends to single out other district institutions as being inadequate, the reviewers said.
Thomas said competition between schools “is fierce, but not productive.”
“The goal is not to make magnet schools richer,” he said. “But make them more robust.”
School board chairwoman, Diane Porter, said the installation of a magnet school program at JCPS isn’t about being good, “it’s about being great.”
Rodosky said the next steps for JCPS officials will be to examine the findings and recommendations laid out by the Magnet Schools of America, then decide a plan of action.
“There is a recommendation that we get together a sort of study group, a task force, to process the findings and bring them back to the board,” he said.
Board member Linda Duncan said the review and recommendations were “all great food for thought.”