Role of Magnet Schools in NYC’s Diversity and Integration Efforts

Metis’s Vice President for Strategy Marilyn Zlotnik, an expert in educational equity, provides her reaction to the NYC integration strategy.

Metis has been supporting school integration, diversity, and equity for almost 30 years.

As a professional who has devoted her career to the cause of educational equity and access, I was excited to read Making the Grade: The Path to Real Integration and Equity for NYC Public School Students, issued by the School Diversity Advisory Group (SDAG). At Metis, we have been supporting school integration, diversity, and equity initiatives for almost 30 years. Our work has focused on assisting school districts across the country, including 14 of NYC’s 32 community school districts, to design and secure funding for magnet school programs specifically designed to attract more diverse populations of students and families through specialized thematic curricula and other academic enrichment opportunities. 

I was therefore disappointed that magnet schools as an integration strategy received such short shrift in the SDAG report.  Magnet schools are in fact mentioned only twice in the report. In a section entitled, “Socioeconomic integration should incorporate research-backed goals,” the authors write, “…there are intentional policy actions the DOE can take to promote such integration across the city. This includes expanding access to high-quality non-selective or non-screened magnet schools which may lead to diverse groups of families opting into integrated learning environments” (pp. 64-65). While historically magnet schools have been associated with selective admissions criteria – and there are examples of this within NYC – non-screened magnet schools far outnumber selective magnets. The largest funding source for magnet schools has been the US Department of Education’s Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), which provides disincentives for districts to use selective criteria such as academic achievement in student admissions.

Additionally, in the report’s discussion about how certain schools could become more integrated based on their community’s demographics, there is a recommendation for the DOE to “invest in programming that intentionally creates diverse populations and integrated learning environments …” and that “the choice of new themes for non-selective magnet schools should be based on survey research” (p. 83).  There are currently 31 theme-based, non-selective magnet schools across 12 community school districts receiving MSAP funding. This does not include the dozens of schools that received MSAP funding in the past that are sustaining the innovative curricular approaches seeded with the federal grant. Furthermore, as required by the USDOE, these schools have desegregation targets, and must make concerted efforts to attract and effectively serve more diverse populations of students and families – goals that are monitored on an annual basis.    

There appear to be multiple conversations within and across New York City communities and stakeholder groups about what diversity means and how it can best be achieved. I urge the SDAG to reach out to the extensive community of magnet school professionals, at the central, district, and school levels, and to the students and families availing themselves of these opportunities, as you continue to explore options for promoting educational diversity and integration across our school system.