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Magnet schools draw students to their doors, far and wide

Date: 
Wednesday, June 2, 2021

What happens when you plop a magnet school down into a lower-income neighborhood? According to data collected by the Cedar Rapids Community School District, good things. Really good things.

In fact, officials liked the results they were seeing so much that within the last five years, they have expanded the magnet schools to a total of five. And they have two more under development, which they call innovative programming schools.

Academics are significantly improving. Take Hoover Elementary, an innovative programming school, which went from “needs improvement” on the Iowa School Performance Profiles to commendable in one year’s time – a two-level increase. Attendance is up, parental engagement is up.

So just what is a magnet school? The district’s website says:

A magnet school is a theme-based school providing parent choice in the type of learning environment they want for their child(ren). They are built on the foundation of the magnet school pillars: diversity, innovative curriculum and professional development, academic excellence, high quality instructional systems, and family and community partnerships. Magnet schools use state and district standards but vary the delivery of instruction by teaching the standards within a theme.

“The philosophy is to bring together our equity and innovation lenses, and to enable our most underserved population to have access to opportunity,” said Jillian Schulte, magnet coordinator.

“We think innovation is a key tool for equity,” said Adam Zimmerman, executive director of middle level education and community partnerships. “We invest resources in schools and communities who are passionate about innovation and the opportunity for growth.”

“These schools have the opportunity for growth,” Schulte said. “So we look at it this way, ‘How can we use these schools to gain interest and engage students and families?’”

Among the five magnet schools in the district, three are in elementary schools and two are in middle schools. The elementary schools act as a feeder line to the middle schools. 
The themes of each magnet school in the district varies based on interest. Each elementary school has its own theme: One focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics (perhaps known better by its acronym STEAM), another on leadership and the third on sustainability. One middle school’s theme is STEAM, while the other middle school has a business theme which ties into leadership, global systems and STEAM.

The schools are open to all children within the school neighborhood. If there are empty seats, they go up for a lottery among the district’s other students. 

All teachers at the schools are taught to teach subject matter through the lens of the school’s theme. 

“The students are still learning everything the students in other schools are learning but through the lens of our magnet themes,” Schulte said. “The kids still get access to the Iowa standards.”

Though the magnet schools in Cedar Rapids are still relatively new, they already are seeing success.

“Two years ago, Hoover grew two levels and went from ‘needs improvement’ to ‘commendable,’” Zimmerman said. “This year, we are seeing really good gains in Kenwood and Roosevelt, in which they are beating the district’s average in math and reading.”

“Academics are why we’re in school,” Schulte said. “But we also use other measures such as community engagement. The magnet schools are growing in enrollment, even though the overall district enrollment is decreasing. We are finding that even if a family moves out of the neighborhood and district, we’re still keeping those kids because they like it so much.”

The magnet schools also have high attendance rates. But the schools also score big when it comes to parent engagement.

“A parent perception survey is conducted every year,” Schulte said. “We are really intentional that parents are supported and understand their children’s educational needs. We have 94 percent of families say they feel supported and understand how to support their children.”

“The engagement is very intentional,” Zimmerman said. “People are excited about their school’s theme. When you walk into these buildings you can feel and see the culture.”

Still, magnet schools don’t just happen. It takes a lot of resources and commitment from the very top to create and sustain a quality magnet school.

“It takes commitment from our district, our community, our parents and staff,” Schulte said. 

The staff, in particular, have to invest time each summer for a total of five professional development days in order to build capacity and ensure they understand the theme from which they are teaching.

“What makes Cedar Rapids unique is our teachers’ and leaders' commitment to our collective beliefs,” Zimmerman said. “It takes incredible time, energy and not to mention dollars to make this successful. But we know innovative practices will lead to better student outcomes.”

Schulte said the district has modeled its magnet schools by following Magnet Schools of America, the leading magnet-school organization in the country.

“We use that as a blueprint and look to the pillars in which we have to create standards and indicators for each pillar,” she said. “We look at those indicators and see where we need to go and determine what leverage we need to get there.” 

“We have lots of work to do and have seen areas of success but also have a long way to go,” Zimmerman said. “But we’re seeing success. It comes down to passion – that is what makes it successful. Some kids are passionate about leadership, some about sustainability and some are focused on STEAM. And that’s the differentiator – it makes students’ passions come alive.”

Enrollment numbers: 

  • 484 lottery students at our five magnet schools
  • 2,104 total students K-8 at our five magnet schools
  • 23% of our K-8 enrollment at our five magnet schools is from lottery enrollment
  • 2,800 K-8 students at our five magnet and two innovative programming schools (total of seven schools)
  • 2,991 PK-8 students at our five magnet and two innovative programming schools (total of seven schools)

Magnet schools and start-up year

  • Johnson STEAM Academy (2015-16)
  • Kenwood Leadership Academy (2016-17)
  • Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy (2017-18)
  • McKinley STEAM Academy (2019-20)
  • Cedar River Academy at Taylor (2019-20)

The two innovative programming schools are Harrison Elementary and Hoover Community School.

Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on July 30, 2021 at 2:39am.