Importance of District-Wide Reform is Focus of Annual Magnet Schools Meeting

On Dec. 5 and 6, the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) team hosted the MSAP Project Directors Meeting in Washington, D.C. Each year, this two-day conference brings together more than 200 members of the MSAP community, including project directors, project evaluators, magnet school principals, magnet school coordinators, curriculum developers, content specialists, and recruitment staff, in order to network, discuss the administration of federal grants, and learn of available technical support, best practices, and resources. For the first time, superintendents of school districts that receive federal funding under the MSAP program participated in order to build support for magnet programs within the larger context of district-wide reform.

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier talks with students during a Broad Foundation research team tour of Ortiz Middle School in May 2013. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Independent School District)

Houston Independent School District Superintendent Terry Grier talks with students during a Broad Foundation research team tour of Ortiz Middle School in May 2013. (Photo courtesy of the Houston Independent School District)

The conference keynote was offered by Superintendent Terry Grier of the Houston Independent School District (HISD). Under his leadership, HISD, the largest school district in Texas, has improved its student outcomes in remarkable ways — its dropout rate declined to an all-time low of 11.8 percent, while its graduation rate remains at an all-time high of 78.5 percent; scholarship dollars to graduating seniors have more than tripled; the number of students scoring a three or higher on AP exams has increased by 45 percent; and the achievement gap has shrunk in a noteworthy manner. All of this led HISD to be named a 2013 recipient of the prestigious Broad Prize for Urban Education — the only two-time winner of the prize. And in December, HISD was one of five school systems to receive federal Race to the Top-District grant funding. Most recently, the HISD placed fourth among more than 100 American school districts in The Education Choice and Competition Index, the Brown Center on Education Policy’s annual guide to the conditions of K-12 school choice in the nation’s largest school districts.

In his remarks, Superintendent Grier outlined his vision for magnet schools within the larger context of district reform in Houston ISD and discussed the role that HISD’s approximately 100 magnet schools play in both fostering equity and diversity in the public school system and expanding community/business partnerships. Audience members characterized his keynote as both highly engaging and inspiring.

Other highlights of the conference included plenary sessions focused on change management; the role of magnet schools in encouraging diversity, equity, and excellence in public schools; and the potential role of STEM-themed magnet schools in the magnet schools movement. In a plenary session entitled “Managing Change in Magnet Schools,” David Gregory, noted change-management expert and director of G&D Associates, outlined the advantages to magnet schools that make use of the tools associated with change management. Change management, according to Gregory, helps magnet schools apply “a framework and structure to their work that gives them a clear picture of what they need to do on a short-, medium-, and long-term basis, and have a playbook for how that pans out on a week-by-week basis.” Overall, effective change-management strategies include “having a well-presented and articulated vision that describes where you need to [go], organizing it into statements and then deliverables, and deliverables feed planning.” The way that change management works most effectively, noted Gregory, is “to help drive people toward an ideal point.”

Sharon J. Lynch, professor of curriculum and pedagogy at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Education and Human Development, presented “A Study of Exemplar Inclusive STEM-Focused Schools and Their Critical Components.” Following a discussion of STEM opportunity structures (e.g., mentoring, real-world experiences outside the classroom, early college admissions), the larger education environment, and the role that STEM education can play in meeting an economic imperative, Lynch shared her National Science Foundation-funded research project concerning inclusive STEM-focused high schools (ISHSs). While they are relatively few in number nationwide, ISHSs, argued Lynch, can be powerful examples of what “regular” students interested in STEM can do when opportunity structures are deliberately incorporated into school environments. Moreover, ISHSs show how to improve STEM education for underrepresented students and provide insights into new school reform models.

Additional breakout sessions addressed a range of topics, including project performance measures, opportunity mapping, cultural brokers, and grants monitoring.

Anna Hinton, director of OII’s Parental Options and Information Office, welcomed the conferees and was joined by Nadya Chinoy Dabby, acting assistant deputy secretary for innovation and improvement, and Catherine E. Lhamon, assistant secretary for civil rights, who shared thoughts on the importance of magnet schools and how they fit into larger ED objectives.

MSAP grantees left the annual conference better equipped to navigate the challenges associated with implementing magnet programs that both increase diversity and improve academic achievement in meaningful and lasting ways.

For more information regarding the 2013 cohort of grants funded under MSAP or to explore magnet school resources available from ED, please visit the MSAP Technical Assistance Center. The Center’s Website offers tools, information, and strategies to both MSAP grantees and the larger magnet school community to assist in planning, implementing, evaluating, and revising magnet school programs.

Justis Tuia is a management and program analyst with the Parental Options and Information division of the Office of Innovation and Improvement.