Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Magnet schools I’d like to see

Our school district is thinking about turning one of our elementary schools into a magnet school. I think it would be great if the district could make a magnet school work, though I do have some questions about the idea. In any event, the news got me thinking about what sort of magnet school “themes” I’d find most appealing. Here are my ideas:

  • School’s Not Boring Magnet School
  • Humane Lunch Period Magnet School
  • Students Have Autonomy Magnet School
  • Intrinsic Motivation Magnet School
  • Local Control Magnet School
  • Free Time Is Important Magnet School
  • Think For Yourself Magnet School
  • Standardized Tests Are Overrated Magnet School
  • No Homework Magnet School
  • Democracy and Individual Rights Magnet School
  • Question Authority Magnet School

I won’t hold my breath. Most of them are probably illegal.


pooter said...

My suggestion is Wrecking Ball Magnet School. I know the perfect school.

Chris said...

Pooter -- Ha! The school board's way ahead of you on that one. Sort of the opposite of a magnet school, though . . .

Julie VanDyke said...

This was one if the blogs of yours I've smiled the most while reading. And then again, in one tongue in cheek joking blog you have already made more suggestions and done more work on options other than busing than anything I've seen from Murley yet.

Julie VanDyke said...

I wish you would do a blog on magnet programming at Twain for "real"...
It would be helpful to have more input on desirable programming, and the process of how that should be determined, i.e., what outreach should be considered also, considering the initial meetings of the "Magnet School Task Force" committee, begin this month shortly after the next board meeting on 10/14.

Chris said...

Julie – Thanks for the comment. I know this post is a little tongue-in-cheek, but not as much as it seems. Compared to the things I describe here, the idea of an arts- or science-focused elementary school seems like an awfully paltry change that wouldn’t address any of my real dissatisfactions with our current schools.

I’ve been reluctant to comment too much on the magnet school idea, because I don’t think I’m really the target customer. If the district can create a magnet school that’s attractive to enough people to be successful, that’s great. I just know that I would have been very reluctant to move my kids from our nearby elementary school to a magnet program, for a bunch of reasons. First, we found the convenience of having the kids go to school close to home to be very valuable. Second, I’m not at all attracted to the idea that kids benefit from “specializing” in elementary school.

Third, I question how different the elementary school experience can be at a magnet school, given that the district feels so obliged to squeeze so much programming into the school day that it can’t find, for example, even five more minutes for lunch, and to the point where the teacher’s union president is worried that the overstuffed school day is hurting morale. (See this post.) What will the school do less of once it starts doing more arts or STEM, etc.? I can’t help but think that the magnet “theme” will be mostly window-dressing.

Fourth, if the district can make good changes in the curriculum at the magnet school, why can’t it make those good changes at all the elementary schools? I wouldn’t object to funneling some extra resources to the magnet school if it can help bring down the economic disparities between schools. But if the changes just involve using time differently, at no real additional cost, then I think it would be wrong to prevent other schools from making the same changes, if the families at those schools wanted them.

Finally, I wouldn’t want to worry about having my kids switch elementary schools multiple times. Will the district stick with the magnet idea for the six or seven years it would take the younger enrollees to get through? I don’t really trust them to do that if they decide the magnet isn’t achieving its goals or is underperforming on standardized tests. (And I’m remembering the way the district invited families at SINA schools to enroll out, only to later change the rules about their eligibility for busing.) Also, by the time the magnet opens, a lot of kids may already have had to switch schools as a result of redistricting; if my kids had already switched once, I’d be very hesitant to switch them again to enroll in the magnet.

But I don’t think my responses are necessarily typical, and there might well be a critical mass for a magnet school of some kind. Even though I probably wouldn’t have sought out a magnet, there are some ideas that I find more appealing than others. The Montessori idea seems like something that would be genuinely different and that might appeal to only a subset of the district’s families, so it strikes me as having some good potential. (I have some trepidation, though, about what the Montessori method would look like after being filtered through a public school administration.) I could also see the appeal of a foreign-language immersion school, since the kids could emerge from that with a genuinely valuable skill – though again, it might be particularly tricky to do well.

On the other hand, curricular “themes” like arts or STEM strike me as unlikely to lead to a school experience that would be different enough to even make me consider switching schools. And the “year-round school” idea holds no appeal at all for me. I should have included the “Shorter School Year, Longer Summer Vacation” school in my list!

Chris said...

As for outreach, I don’t know. I think there are a lot of people who are in favor of having the district start a magnet school but who are not themselves interested in switching their kids to one. (I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.) But if the magnet’s going to work, it won’t be enough just to get community input on what the programming should be. The district will need to get a real sense of just how many people will be likely to send their kids there. If the critical mass isn’t there, then it will be a lot of effort and expense that won’t have the desired result. I doubt it’s possible to pin people down in advance on whether they’ll enroll their kids in a hypothetical magnet, so I don’t really know how you’d try to estimate it, or at what point you’d feel comfortable rolling the dice.

Julie VanDyke said...

1) Chris Liebig, you are always skeptical about everything, that's why you make such a good blogger and voice of the district. You look at things from all angles, positive and negative.

2) I hope you are wrong, as the devil’s advocate against whether a magnet will work...which I know you will play because it seems to be a part of your form of subject analysis, not really a bad thing unless it dominates to the point of not being able to see positive potentials and thereby compromising their possibility by drowning them in the why this can’t work frame of mind.

3 will follow due to allowable length by comment gateway.

Julie VanDyke said...

3) Remember:

-Much of Twain is going to be shiny and new also. BECAUSE TWAIN WILL BE A "RECONSTITUTED" SCHOOL, AS I UNDERSTAND IT, IT WOULD ALSO NOT BE ELIGIBLE TO SINA OUT OF, however, oddly against the idea of incentivization, and choice, Twain COULD be designated as a receiving school for other SINA eligible transfers, though I don't believe it should not be used in that manner for people who live too far away unless they choose to go there for magnet opportunities.

-The district is finally shutting the door to open transfers within schools, there may be some play there but we'll have to see what happens to SINA by then.
we'll see if they're still bound by SINA.

-While new schools, since they will be de facto not eligible for SINA transfers out, all "reconstituted" schools will/could also fit that situation and ban SINA transfers out.

-With NCLB/SINA changes on the horizon, and, apparently, a total flip-flop by Arne Duncan on standardized testing etc. (see article)., if SINA is no longer in place & forcing the district to allow SINA transfers, combined with the district's new closed door to open transfers (see their home page announcement) that will lock people into their attendance area school based on address, which will control migration throughout the district.

-Additionally, since SINA busing has now been pretty much eliminated by the district, already new SINA transfers have almost disappeared. I think we are really just left with the legacy SINA transfers from former Superintendent Duane Plugge and the previous board (including Patty and Tuyet) who allowed, in fact, chose, to put all that SINA discretionary money, ok, most of it, into busing SINA transfers instead of splitting it with emphasis on use of dollars for tutoring (this was ALWAYS their option, they just didn't choose to use it that way.) Now think about that for a second, we could have used a large percentage of the SINA busing dollars for tutoring that could have been offered to the SINA endangered schools, then, growl with me about that as we think about how crowded the SINA school classes were at one time and/or how much they could have benefited, even if the class size was small, from specialized tutoring.

-Have you done much research on successful magnet schools? Everyone points to the ones that failed, which I think is kinda stupid...not that we shouldn't learn from their mistakes, BUT, wouldn't it be wiser to focus on the ones that have worked well, how they have worked well, and how they might fit without district, most of all, with what the children, parents, and teachers at Twain would like - with an emphasis on choosing a model that will also be appealing to a wider area?

-No, I doubt we're going to attract people on the other side of the district to even a perfect Twain magnet, not because of the DP, but because they NEVER wanted to go there in the first place = what has changed? I kinda think that point is irrelevant, I doubt the goal is to get as many people from the North West side of the district there as possible, what should be the goal is to draw as much socioeconomic diverse population from the Eastern side of the district. Now, think about where the people most likely to value and desire a performing arts (including a variety of overlapping focuses, some of which could potentially include communications, writing (think of potential collaboration with visitors from Iowa Writer’s Workshop/International Writers Workshop as an example), acting (play and cinema), media production, fine arts...sooooooo many possibilities).

Julie VanDyke said...

Caveats on not providing district transportation = failure:

Transportation to this magnet school, and not necessarily busing, for those kids outside the 2 mile radius OR who face dangerous obstacles to being able to walk to school needs to be provided, period. Not providing transportation is the single most effective way for the superintendent and board to ensure a Magnet school or programming at Twain does NOT attract sufficient participants or improve socioeconomic diversity. No school will succeed without it, no school will be an incentive without it.

I’m not imagining a fairy tale arts school that’s going to keel over after a year, I’m imagining the possibility of a school which offers focuses and hands-on experience from a very early age (potentially with Jr. High grades added at some point to take the pressure off of SEJH crowding AND to allow the kids to continue their studies in magnet programming offerings). I’m imagining a magnet school that funnels children’s interests into lifelong interests in which there is work to be had for those with experience who are, from childhood, focused on the areas that most appeal to them.

I have looked into successful schools along these lines, their children are VERY engaged, their test scores are up (your favorite Chris), and they’re not hurting for attendees, in fact, the junior high versions now have to screen for admittance by requiring application AND an audition. I’m not recommending that for elementary school, the audition part per se. But my point is, there are very successful schools out there, which have used this magnet programming with amazing positive changes because of it, and the results have improved socioeconomic equity problems in their districts for the better.

Julie VanDyke said...

Caveat on process engagment:

The MOST important thing, other than looking at successful magnet programming/magnet schools for a framework and examples of possible choices, is to truly, yes I MEAN TRULY, directly engage during the planning and evaluative process:

-The children and parents in the current enrollment area so they feel it is their school and they have been a large part of choosing what goes into place there.

-The children and parents living in the east, middle, and south sides of the district (the others too but, if they have no intention of sending their kids there, their opinions are rather moot though their suggestions are not).

-The teachers at Twain and Wood, they have the best insight into this particular area. Teachers throughout the district should be included but I think the ideas of the teachers that teach or have taught at Twain and Wood should be given much more weight.

-The teacher’s union should be consulted and asked how they might best provide guidance and insight into the process pre & post implementation.

-Engage Iowa City, should be used very heavily, though I would prefer a system that actually was less easy to manipulate and I don’t see much input there from many of the people we most need to hear from.

-I think engaging with UI’s School of Performing Arts, Iowa & International Writers Workshops, Communication Studies, English, Fine Arts, Cinema, and those who have been involved in the previous groundbreaking undergraduate major of Literature, Science & the offense to any departments that I’ve missed, but full encouragement that people bring up any I did. I think it would be CRUCIAL to engage these departments quickly and early...if they are interested (how could they NOT be?) in potential collaborations, then the best way to encourage that is to have them engaged from the beginning, particularly in asking them to come up with ideas of collaboration and magnet programming they might be interested in participating with...

-I would suggest engaging early with other specialized schools/training opportunities in the area, i.e., Willowind and Preucil School of Music, whatever we’re calling the Cedar Rapids Symphony these days, etc, UAY programming, local groups that offer guidance, skills, and support for at risk students. All of these groups have valuable insight into what they know people of many backgrounds REALLY want access to.

-Engage early with other successful schools with this kind of Magnet programming which an official Magnet School or not. Their insight is crucial, and it's a lot better than us just trying to interpret what does or did not work for them.

Julie VanDyke said...


I would hope the Magnet Task Force is not so big that people engage in a struggle that is either unproductive, compromises the results, or keeps them from reaching good consensus because of conflicting ideas or people.

I have a small fear that, if, for example, "the district" wanted this initiative to fail, the best way to do that would be to constitute a committee that will be bogged down in personal attacks (I really would like to see people phrase things in terms of "I think this _____" or "I have concerns about this potential issue _____ without it becoming I disagree with this person because _____).

To phrase and interact in that way will be much more productive, than anything the committee will accomplish if it becomes an individual battle for dominance over the outcome that, by disagreement instead of positive statements of what each person does think might work, will paralyze the committee or compromise the quality of its work.

I would like to see the final committee report include a personal written statement from each member as to their preferred programming/structure and hopes, in addition to the business as usual majority consensus rules group report. Group reports lose for all of time the out of the box, important ideas and many crucial details because they are majority rule...if we have both a primary group consensus and individual reports al included in the final result, we get the best both versions have to offer without missing anything obscure that might be important to consider.