After students in the Water Investigations Academy program at Pendergast Elementary School District learn about different aspects of water in the classroom, they analyze it on a field trip to the Salt River and then take part in discussions with an expert on the subject.
This magnet program for fourth- and seventh-graders features a hands-on learning style that immerses students in a subject, a characteristic shared by many of the nearly 20 magnet schools and various programs that exist in Arizona. Magnet schools and programs use diverse curricula and project-based learning targeting students’ interests to engage them in a learning environment tailored to their individual needs that meets or exceeds state standards and fosters students’ academic growth.
The Water Investigations Academy is just one of the STEAM academies offered to students in Pendergast that emphasize moving past memorizing information to gaining a deeper understanding of concepts.
“Every project that they do, and any learning that they’re doing, they have to justify their learning,” said Dora Barrio, chief academic officer for the west Phoenix school district that serves more than 10,000 students. “They have to explain it, and go into more depth as they do that.”
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That means students in the program do a great deal of public speaking.
“Students have many opportunities to present to each other, to present to adults, so they have to become very good speakers,” Barrio said. “And that’s a key piece for them in any field they go into.”
Magnet school podcast by David Marino Jr./AZEdNews
While magnet schools offer a specialized focus, these public school programs must meet the same state requirements as other district public schools and are under the supervision of their local school boards.
Magnet schools are one of the many avenues to education that is emphasized every year during National School Choice Week, which aims to raise public awareness of many education options. More than 21,000 events were held across the United States for National School Choice Week, which was January 22 through 28 this year.
Increasing student engagement
Arguably the most important part of magnet school programs is that students can dive into a subject they are interested in at a young age.
To many teachers, keeping students engaged in a learning environment is among the biggest challenges. A 2015 Gallup Student Poll of students in grades 5-12 determined that only 50 percent of students were engaged in school.
Accommodating the individual interests of students is among the most important benefits that magnet schools provide, said Karin Eberhard, district relations coordinator for Flagstaff Unified School District.
“If a student has a particular interest, it really can foster that interest,” Eberhard said. “It (a magnet school) really gives them a way to have a little bit extra focus on what interests them.”
This is especially true in middle school, when students take electives they’re interested in, said Eberhard.
Students who enroll in The Middle School Institute of Technology and Engineering atFlagstaff’s Sinagua Middle School have the opportunity to design things like musical instruments and solar ovens and have access to resources, including a 3-D printer and community business partners who can give them expertise about design, science and engineering.
“It’s extremely rigorous, but the kids just love it,” Eberhard said.
Technology is key
This hands-on learning makes strong use of technology.
In Pendergast’s academies, each student has their own personal computer, which they use in different ways based on the magnet programs’ specific topic.
For example, students in the Design and Build Academy use 3-D design software to create buildings, while students in the Writer’s Academy use their computers to research topics they will write about and do presentations on, Barrio said.
“Technology is just used for about everything nowadays, and students use it very well,” Barrio said.
Fostering academic achievement
Magnet schools also encourage academic growth and achievement, preparing students early for rigorous work in later grades and post-secondary education and training.
Academic achievement is an important aspect of magnet schools, especially those involving programs for advanced students, said Dr. Adelle McNiece, senior program coordinator for the magnet office at Tucson Unified School District.
Students in Tucson’s Tulley Elementary Magnet School, a gifted and talented program, do not have to meet testing criteria to get into the program, but the academics there are generally more rigorous than at other schools, McNiece said.
“Every child is held to that higher standard,” McNiece said.
The International Baccalaureate programs at Tucson Unified schools uses a rigorous curriculum unique to all IB programs worldwide that focuses on developing globally-minded students who have the capability to think critically and challenge assumptions they have about the world.
Tucson Unified features three distinct IB programs for students. One begins in elementary school, another focuses on middle school students and students in the Diploma Programme at Cholla High Magnet School extensively study law and may earn college credits and scholarships for post-secondary education.
“Our IB schools, specifically Cholla, have such rigorous curriculum, that if you walked into one of their classes for their high school kids, you might think that you were in a sophomore-level college class,” McNiece said.
Structured approach based on students’ abilities
At Drachmann Montessori K-8 Magnet School in Tucson Unified, students learn using the Montessori approach to education.
This structured learning process that’s based on ability level is based on the educational philosophy that Maria Montessori, a physician and teacher, developed almost a 100 years ago. It is practiced in schools across the world.
The main focus at a Montessori school is for students to participate in hands-on learning that is tailored to the individual student. According to the American Montessori Society, the main purpose of a Montessori education is to foster’s a child’s “natural inclination” for learning.
Although it is different from a traditional classroom, McNiece said there is a misconception about Montessori structure.
“A lot of people mistake Montessori as kind of a free-form type of education where kids get to decide for themselves what they’re learning,” McNiece said. “Montessori education is a very structured education that’s based on ability levels that kids may have at different times.”
A Montessori classroom is different from a traditional classroom because students in kindergarten and first through fourth grade will often be working in the same classroom and teachers may instruct students one-on-one or in small groups. Students carry mats with them to each classroom that delineate their “learning space,” McNiece said.
As teachers track each student’s progress, they move those who have mastered concepts along to more difficult material, while those who are not ready can continue to work at their own pace.
All of these things help magnet schools and programs prepare students for academic success.
“One of the things that magnet schools do is make sure that academic achievement is as high as possible,” McNiece said. “You know that you are going to get a solid education at a magnet school.”