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Choices Worth Making: Creating, Sustaining and Expanding Diverse Magnet Schools

Authors: Jennifer Ayscue, Rachel Levy, Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, and Brian Woodward
Date Published: June 01, 2017

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Purpose of this manual

The purpose of this manual is to support school districts and schools in developing diverse and equitable magnet programs. It is intended to help stakeholders during the planning phases of developing new magnet schools or during the revision or expansion of existing magnet schools. The manual also provides helpful insights into sustaining the success of a magnet school.

Before we begin, we want to acknowledge that the term “magnet school” brings to mind many different kinds of educational settings. Beyond two broad, general characteristics — the provision of something that is educationally unique from what other public schools offer and a diminished reliance on traditional attendance zones — magnet programs have considerably different designs. The sector includes whole-school programs, smaller magnet programs housed within a host school, magnets with competitive or noncompetitive entrance requirements, and magnets with or without racial and/or socioeconomic diversity guidelines. Magnets have also operated in cities across the country for more than four decades, making them one of the oldest forms of school choice. Over long periods of time and across distinctive contexts, diversity goals and programmatic emphases may shift or disappear altogether.

These varying magnet characteristics mean different things for integration. Without regular evaluation and recommitment to equity, magnets can stray their core, historical goal of integration. The contents of this particular manual are designed to help stakeholders think about how to establish, update or expand the most equitable and inclusive magnets possible. Much of the information included here also can help guide the efforts to make other types of schools more diverse and equitable.

Magnet schools represent unique possibilities for bringing together educational stakeholders interested in advancing both school choice and equal educational opportunities. With policymakers across the political spectrum continuing to make the expansion of school choice a central educational policy goal, lessons from magnet schools become even more important to consider. Strong magnets combine diversity goals with excellent educational options to help combat the country’s deepening racial and economic school segregation.

This manual starts with empirical evidence intended to help the reader understand why magnet schools, and racially integrated magnet schools in particular, are worthy of consideration. In this section, we describe the research documenting the benefits associated with racial diversity and magnet schools. The next section provides a description of the history of magnet schools, which will help readers understand how and why magnets originated and how they have evolved over time.

We then turn to the important and complex work of developing diverse and equitable magnet schools. In this section, we outline numerous strategies that school districts and schools can employ to enroll a racially diverse student body and to facilitate successful intergroup contact among a racially diverse group of students within the school. In a subsequent section, we outline the keys to sustaining magnet schools. To assist leaders in building support for magnet schools, we include suggestions about how to build political will and engage the community in supporting magnet schools. We conclude by offering the reader additional sources for more information about developing racially diverse and equitable magnet schools.

The contents of this manual are based in part on prior research from many scholars who are referenced throughout. As indicated in the manual, we draw from Genevieve Siegel-Hawley and Erica Frankenberg’s chapter entitled “Designing Choice: Magnet School Structures and Racial Diversity,” which appeared in the book, Educational Delusions? Why Choice Can Deepen Inequality and How to Make Schools Fair, edited by Gary Orfield and Erica Frankenberg. We also incorporate recent research independently conducted by The Civil Rights Project, which included phone interviews with Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) project directors from 24 districts as well as intensive site visits with three racially diverse magnet schools in the West, Northeast and Southeast of the country.


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