40th anniversary special article series

magnet schools – then and now

Forty years ago, the first magnet schools were created as a tool to further racial desegregation in large urban school districts. In contrast to court-ordered methods and strategies such as forced bussing, the vision was that magnets would provide a voluntary means to create more diverse schools by offering parents and their children a unique environment or distinctive educational experience (such as a thematic curriculum or special pedagogical model). As the courts began to recognize magnet schools as a school desegregation method, the number of magnet schools began to grow. With the advent of the U.S. Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) in 1985, federal funds have been appropriated to support the development and implementation of magnet school programs. To date, the federal investment in magnet schools exceeds $1 billion.

Student creations at MS 358 Magnet School of STEAM Exploration and Experiential Learning in New York City Department of Education's District 28.

One of the watershed events in the trajectory of the magnet school movement was the Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 lawsuit in 2007. This case challenged the legality of school districts using an individual student’s race as a deciding factor in student assignment. While the Supreme Court ruled that desegregation is a compelling state interest—and that magnet schools are in fact a useful tool to promote desegregation—the stipulations in this decision regarding the narrowly tailored use of race in student assignment served to undermine magnets’ role in promoting desegregation. Over the past decade, magnet schools have been folded into the larger narrative of school choice, and face increasingly stiff competition from charter schools and other school choice options, including vouchers. These challenges notwithstanding, according to a report commissioned by Magnet Schools of America, there are now 4,340 magnet schools across 46 states, which collectively educate nearly 3.5 million students across the U.S.

There is a significant body of research spanning several decades that speaks to the benefits, both academic and non-academic, of attending diverse schools and, conversely, the harms of attending segregated schools. Documented benefits for all children attending diverse schools include improving non-cognitive and leadership skills and reducing bias and racial stereotypes. The results regarding the impact of magnet schools on students’ academic outcomes, however, are mixed, due in large measure to the methodological challenge associated with studying a model that places significant emphasis on the uniqueness of each magnet school’s program.

Metis’s first foray into the world of magnets was in 1989, when we were engaged by the Superintendent of Community School District 1 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to write a MSAP grant proposal. The much needed, multi-year project - named Project Phoenix - was awarded to the school district. Today, almost 30 years later, CSD 1 is in the forefront of the school integration movement in NYC, and Metis has a national reputation as a leader in magnet school development, research, and evaluation.

For more information about Metis’s magnet school work, please contact Claire Aulicino at caulicino@metisassoc.com or 212-425-8833.

client spotlights

Magnet Grant Development

Since 1989, Metis Associates' grant-development specialists have worked with a wide range of school districts throughout the U.S. to develop magnet school initiatives in support of voluntary desegregation plans and to obtain MSAP funds to implement these plans. Securing more than $235 million for these clients, Metis has helped elementary, middle, and high school teams to design magnet program plans that incorporate a wide array of innovative and research- and evidence-based curricular and instructional models—including STEAM, visual and performing arts, International Baccalaureate, and others. Metis staff also help to craft outreach and recruitment plans to attract new students and families to these magnet schools, and assist in the design and implementation of program plans that meet the stringent criteria of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, including lottery systems for student selection and placement in the magnet programs.


Magnet Grant Evaluation

Since 1991, Metis has conducted a total of 26 evaluations of MSAP grants. These evaluations, employing a wide variety of data-collection and analysis methods, provide feedback on the districts' success in meeting federal objectives and performance indicators associated with school desegregation, capacity building, and student achievement. Research designs include formative, summative, and rigorous methods (including quasi-experimental designs that make use of state-of-the-art propensity score matching techniques) to support districts in implementing continuous improvement models. MSAP grant evaluations have been carried out for urban, rural, and suburban school districts, including more than half of the community school districts in the New York City Department of Education; Beacon (NY) City School District; Baltimore County (MD) Public Schools; Broward County (FL) Public Schools; Champaign Unit 4 (IL); Orangeburg 3 (SC) Consolidated School District; Metro Nashville (TN) Public Schools; San Diego Unified School District (CA); and Wake County (NC) Public School System.


Magnet Program Audits

Metis has been engaged by several school districts and boards of education to design and carry out magnet program and school choice audits.

  • In 2015, Metis was contracted by Montgomery County (MD) Public Schools (MCPS) to conduct a study of the district’s wide array of choice and special academic programs. The study examined the unique history and current state of each of MCPS’s choice and other special academic programs; benchmarked programs with national best practices and standards for school choice; assessed the equity of access to choice programs for all students across the district; evaluated the extent to which the programs advance the district’s mission, purpose, and core values; and gathered stakeholder feedback to inform strategic planning for choice and special academic programs.
  • In 2014, Metis conducted a district-wide review of magnet programs for Broward County Public Schools, which benchmarked 55 magnet programs across the district with national standards for magnet programs and district goals and priorities.
  • In 2013, Baltimore County Public Schools engaged Metis to conduct a six-month audit of the district’s more than 100 magnet programs, housed in 28 schools. The audit examined the effectiveness of the magnet program in the areas of equity of access, implementation of the district and school-level magnet programs, and the central administration of the program.
  • In 2008, Metis was hired to conduct an audit of the effectiveness and academic rigor of the Pittsburgh Public Schools’ 28 magnet programs to inform the development of a choice model to increase student and parental options.