Every morning, the scene in front of Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts & Science is always one of excitement, whether it’s the middle of the semester or even the start of the school year. Everyone—or practically everyone, perhaps—is happy to get to class. It is what you would expect at one of the top schools in the state of Minnesota.
Glacier Hills is a magnet school, with an arts and sciences theme that provides a pretty wide door for a variety of kids to enroll. They come from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds—rich, poor, some even homeless—because they want to learn here. We are developing a different type of mind; students enjoy making things on the 3D printer, learning cello, creating stop-motion movies on iPads that tell stories written in their classrooms, and find relevance in math class as they learn how to code.
The success of Glacier Hills is not unique however. The federally run Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP) that helped turn around Glacier Hills has helped a number of struggling and racially segregated schools around the country. We now have over 4,000 magnet schools across the US serving over two million students. There are over 80 magnet schools in Minnesota, many of which were created using MSAP funds.
Magnet schools are the original form of public school choice. They were created with the goal of reducing school segregation while providing high-quality education programs to all students. Around the country, magnet schools have accomplished this on a much larger scale than other school choice options like charter schools.
According to the UCLA Civil Rights Project, for example, New York City magnet schools have the highest proportion of multiracial schools, at 47 percent, and the lowest proportion of segregated schools, at 56 percent. In contrast, 90 percent of New York City charter schools are considered intensely segregated and only 8 percent are considered multiracial.
Research also shows that schools with a high concentration of families in poverty can be improved by attracting students from a broader mix of socioeconomic backgrounds. Kids from different settings learn from each other and encourage each other to dream bigger, share perspectives and have access to a wider world of opportunity. Magnet schools keep them more engaged—students were less likely to be absent or skip class—and provide more peer support for academic achievement.
The federal funding that districts can access allows them to offer theme-based curriculum around topics including science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); fine and performing arts; career and technical education; and world languages. These schools attract and retain teachers who are drawn to unconventional yet innovative methods of instruction.
But the federal funding used to start magnet schools—the only assistance targeted at eliminating racially and socioeconomically segregated schools—has always been kicked around and pushed aside. With the current change in leadership at the U.S. Department of Education and a new president on the horizon, educators are worried about the direction that federal education policy will take now.
If federal and similar state and local funding programs disappear, the path that schools like Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts & Science took to achieve success for its students will also disappear.
This is not the time for government to turn its back on what works. Everyone needs to recognize magnet programs for the high-quality choices that they offer students and their parents. Magnet schools have taught us how to reduce the achievement gaps among students from different backgrounds and give all of them a real chance to thrive.
Thomas is principal of Glacier Hills Elementary School of Arts & Science in Eagan and president of Magnet Schools of Minnesota. He is also the former executive director of Magnet Schools of America.