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Advancing Integration and Equity Through Magnet Schools

By Janel George Linda Darling-Hammond
A music teacher leads choir students in a warm-up exercise.

The long-standing effort to desegregate schools in the United States has been fostered, in part, by the development of magnet schools, which were launched in the 1960s to offer appealing choices of educational programs that could attract an integrated population of families. Magnet schools are public elementary or secondary schools that seek to achieve voluntary desegregation through parental choice rather than through student assignment by offering specialized instruction and innovative academic offerings. They are often situated in urban centers, with the goal of drawing students from surrounding areas—like a magnet—to attend the school. Some magnet schools operate on a regional basis in order to address interdistrict desegregation.

Despite the evidence of the harm of segregated schools, research shows that schools are resegregating at alarming rates.

Why Integration Matters

Well-established research outlines the benefits of school integration, including increased civic participation in a diverse global economy and increased likelihood of living in integrated neighborhoods and holding jobs in integrated workplaces as adults. Studies have found that the academic benefits of attending integrated schools include:

  • higher achievement in math, science, language, and reading;
  • school climates supportive of learning and studying;
  • increased likelihood of graduating from high school and entering and graduating from college;
  • higher income and educational attainment;
  • increased access to highly qualified teachers and leaders who are less likely to transfer to other schools;
  • enhanced classroom discussion; and
  • more advanced social and historical thinking.

Students attending schools that are highly segregated by race and poverty—known as “hypersegregated” schools—are deprived of the benefits of integrated education. Most significantly, hypersegregated schools are characterized by resource inequities that translate into large proportions of inexperienced and underprepared educators and a lack of rigorous coursework. This has negative consequences for students’ academic outcomes, such as standardized achievement tests and high school graduation rates.

Despite the evidence of the harm of segregated schools, research shows that schools are resegregating at alarming rates. One study found that during the quarter century since the high point of integration in 1988, the share of intensely segregated non-white schools (defined as those schools with fewer than 10% white students) more than tripled, increasing from 6% to 19% of all public schools. And another study found that white and Latino/a students are the most segregated subgroups of students.

In this context of deepening school segregation, it is important to examine the evidence on the conditions in which magnet schools can innovate, improve the quality of education, boost the achievement of students, and promote integrated learning environments.

Components of Diverse Magnet Schools That Promote Positive Student Outcomes

Research shows that diverse magnet schools that support positive social and academic outcomes share some common features. These components can be categorized as “first door” components, which help to bring students from different backgrounds to magnet schools, and “second door” components, which help to foster inclusive environments and promote shared success for students of color within diverse magnet schools, without tracking them into separate classes that depress their opportunities for success.

First door components include:

  • incorporation of integration into school design, mission, structure, and goals;
  • intentional and ongoing family outreach and engagement;
  • implementation of inclusive enrollment practices; and
  • provision of free transportation.

Second door components include:

  • access to the magnet school curriculum that is culturally responsive and program elements for all students throughout the school;
  • culturally responsive curriculum and instruction;
  • staff who are prepared to teach students from different backgrounds and cultures in heterogeneous classrooms;
  • ongoing professional development opportunities for staff; and
  • nondiscriminatory, restorative discipline practices.

Considerations to Help Create and Foster Diverse Magnet Schools

Diverse magnet schools that incorporate these components can be created and fostered through policies at the federal, state, district, and school levels, including:

At the federal level:

  1. Reinstating federal guidance to states and localities about evidence-based approaches to support school diversity, including magnet schools.
  2. Expanding federal investments in magnet schools and using them to leverage school diversity and student success.

At the state level:

  1. Expanding strategic state and local investments in magnet schools in ways that support school diversity.

At the district level:

  1. Supporting school-level strategies that promote both integration and student success, including:
  • supporting ongoing outreach to diverse families through multiple platforms;
  • supporting schools in implementation of open and inclusive enrollment practices, such as lotteries, interviews, and essays, to attract students of color, English learners, and students from low-income families along with white and more affluent families to magnet schools; and
  • making strategic decisions about school siting and feeder patterns to optimize diversity and accessibility.

At the school level:

  1. Schools can implement second door efforts that ensure that students within magnet schools are supported in positive, culturally affirming, and inclusive environments, including:
  • focusing on whole school magnet programs, which have been found to better foster diversity than “in-school” programs in otherwise diverse schools, and, to support this approach, supporting and preparing magnet school teachers to deliver instruction aligned with the school theme that is embedded in the curriculum, including through the provision of professional development opportunities;
  • providing innovative and culturally responsive curriculum to all students; and
  • implementing nonexclusionary, restorative school discipline policies and social and emotional learning in schools and supporting educators through ongoing training on implicit bias and anti-racism to aid educators in addressing bias and understanding how it may manifest in the school and classroom.

Advancing Integration and Equity Through Magnet Schools by Janel George and Linda Darling-Hammond is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Core operating support for the Learning Policy Institute is provided by the S. D. Bechtel, Jr. Foundation, Heising-Simons Foundation, William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Raikes Foundation, and Sandler Foundation. We are grateful to them for their generous support. The ideas voiced here are those of the authors and not those of our funders.

Photo by Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for EDUimages