As this year marks the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision outlawing legal racial segregation in public schools, now is a good time to reflect on programs that promote diversity in schools. As a program officer for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), I’m part of a team that manages funding awarded to school districts nationwide to implement magnet programs in their schools. The MSAP has two primary goals: 1) to promote racial/ethnic diversity in schools; and 2) to improve student academic achievement.
Magnet schools offer a unique, rigorous curriculum and theme (e.g., performing arts; global and international studies; Montessori; science, technology, engineering and math), in order to “attract” a diverse set of students to attend. MSAP focuses its funds on schools that use a non-selective lottery system (rather than academic criteria) for admissions, which helps support schools that offer educational choices to a broad array of students.
Last month, when I attended the Magnet Schools of America national conference in Hartford, Conn., I had the opportunity to see some successful magnet schools in action. Connecticut has a unique school choice system that resulted from the 1996 Sheff v. O’Neill case, in which the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the racial and socioeconomic isolation of Hartford school children violates the state constitution.
Following the Sheff ruling, the Connecticut Legislature created statewide programs, managed by the Connecticut State Department of Education, to increase equitable educational opportunities for students of all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. These include Open Choice, which allows urban students to attend public schools in nearby suburban towns or suburban and rural students to attend public schools in a nearby urban center. The program operates in the Hartford, New Haven, and Bridgeport areas.
Connecticut’s Interdistrict Magnet Schools offers another option for achieving equitable educational opportunities. Operated by local and regional boards of education, regional educational service centers, and community-technical colleges, the more than 115 Interdistrict Magnet Schools, like Open Choice schools, use a lottery system when the number of interested students exceeds available seats.
The Sheff ruling also prompted amendments to the state’s charter school laws, permitting charters to be specifically used to increase racial and ethnic diversity in the public schools. In addition to applicants providing specific information about plans for a diverse student body and racial and ethnic diversity of their staffs, the state board of education, in its approval process, considers the effect of a proposed charter school on the reduction of racial, ethnic, and economic isolation in the region in which it is to be located.
During my time in Connecticut, I visited four magnet high schools and one magnet middle school, and left feeling impressed and invigorated by the work underway.
Where did I go?
- Academy of Aerospace and Engineering (grades 6-12), Hartford. Recently ranked the No.1 high school in Connecticut and the No.15 high school in the nation by U.S. News and World Report, the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering developed its magnet school program with support from a 2010-2014 MSAP grant. The high school and middle school are currently located on two separate campuses while they await the completion of a new building, slated to open in August 2015.
- Engineering and Science University Magnet School (grades 9-12), New Haven. Known as ESUMS, the magnet program, which is supported by a 2010-2014 MSAP grant, focuses on engineering and provides an innovative curriculum in partnership with industry and higher education to stay current with industry trends and best practices.
- Cooperative Arts and Humanities High School (grades 9-12), New Haven. Co-op, as it is known, is a rigorous, arts-focused, college preparatory program that awakens a diverse community of student-artists to their individual powers as 21st century creators, thinkers, and leaders.
- Metropolitan Business Academy (grades 9-12), New Haven. MBA offers programs of study in four academic pathways: Academy of Allied Health and Science; Academy of Digital Arts and Technology; Academy of Finance; and Academy of Law and Political Science. Through an interdisciplinary approach, students are prepared for further study in a wide range of business enterprises so they can compete in a 21st century global economy.
What did I see?
Several themes emerged as I toured the schools and spoke with students:
- Student-driven learning experiences: Students at Academy of Aerospace and Engineering participated in independent research projects, ranging from studying the effects of nutrients from green tea on cancer cells, to observing how alcohol and energy drink ingredients impact zebra fish embryos, to building a functional humanoid robot on a 3D printer. Supported by a teacher/researcher, students created project budgets for approval by the principal, designed and refined their research, and presented their findings at the Connecticut Science Fair. Students spoke enthusiastically about their projects that educators helped them craft to align their individual interests with real-world science applications.
- High levels of engagement: At each school, educators provided a framework for teaching and learning, but allowed students the opportunity to shape their assignments, resulting in creative outcomes and very engaged learning. At ESUMS, for example, students were encouraged to incorporate their science and technology knowledge into their English and literature presentations. I don’t need to tell you how impressive some of the finished products were because you can watch one for yourself here.
- Interdisciplinary learning: The students engaged in interdisciplinary learning and were encouraged to work as a team to learn from their peers. At MBA, Shirley-Ann developed an idea in her business class for Perfect Surprises, a company that will arrange the perfect prom proposal — the promposal — for students in the school. Taking advantage of the school’s technology department, she created a marketing video and fully functioning website for her company, which recently took first place in a statewide competition. By working across disciplines and engaging the help of her peers, Shirley-Ann created a well-rounded project, reflective of real-world experiences.
- Common interests and camaraderie: Students and teachers had a strong sense of community in their schools. As I observed and spoke with students, it became clear that because students shared a common interest in their schools’ themes, it offered them an environment where they could “fit in” and thrive. The students at the STEM schools spoke about being a bit nerdy — but that it was cool to be nerdy at their schools. Students at the MBA school were very outgoing and talked about the importance of collaborating with both teachers and other students to shape their education. Co-op students talked about the importance of the creative arts disciplines to their sense of identity and ability to express themselves.
- Racial and socioeconomic diversity: Students spoke about how much their school’s diversity improved their learning experience. Learning about other cultures and perspectives from their classmates broadened their individual outlooks and enriched their school experience. Students also felt that the diverse and culturally open environments allowed them to break free from the stereotyping they might have experienced in other schools.
- Challenging curriculum: Lastly, nearly every student told me that they loved their school’s challenging curriculum. Eighth-grader Princess explained, “I didn’t know I was smart until I came here and was challenged.” She talked about the sharp contrast with her former school. When asked where she thought she’d be if she hadn’t applied to the Academy of Aerospace and Engineering, Princess was at a loss for words and just began to cry, which said it all.
Magnets offer the promise of educational equity
When implemented well, magnet schools can offer an effective public school option for students from diverse backgrounds. When students have a choice to attend a school that aligns with their individual interests, when teachers and administrators construct an environment that encourages students to collaborate and shape their own learning, when educators can choose to dedicate their skills to a school environment that is best aligned with their interests and vision, and when these educational options are open to students of all backgrounds, impressive outcomes can result.
Sixty years after outlawing school segregation, as a nation, we still have a ways to go to achieve educational equity across our public schools. However, seeing these magnet schools in action gives me hope that we have strategies in place to help us achieve that goal, and we need to continue to highlight and support those that are working towards high-quality, equitable education for all of America’s students.
Brittany Beth is a management and program analyst in the Magnet Schools Assistance Program, Parental Options and Information division, Office of Innovation and Improvement.