Magnet Schools Work to Promote Diversity, STEM Opportunity

Students at Heidelberg Elementary School in Clarksdale, Miss., work on iPads in the classroom. (Photo courtesy of Clarksdale Municipal School District)

What’s the first thing you think about when you hear about magnet schools?

If you had asked me before this summer, I probably wouldn’t have been able to answer the question. I knew a lot of people who attended magnet schools as kids, but that was about it.

After this summer, however, I know a great deal more about magnet schools and the role they play in American education. As an intern for the Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP), I spent my summer researching Office of Innovation and Improvement funding to magnet schools and the impact of that money in 12 states nationwide. Magnet schools are free public schools that offer a specialized curriculum — like performing arts, International Baccalaureate (IB), or science — to students interested in a particular theme or focus.

The MSAP provides federal grants to local education agencies (LEAs) or consortia of LEAs to implement magnet school programs to achieve the primary purposes of promoting racial/ethnic diversity in schools and improving academic achievement.

Besides my tutoring of musicians back in school, my first experience in education — my first job out of college, really — was working as an AmeriCorps tutor and mentor in the District of Columbia Public Schools, just a few miles away from the Department of Education’s headquarters. As a corps member working with City Year Washington, D.C., my work was often challenging, but it was also deeply rewarding. I came to realize my interest in education would outlive my AmeriCorps years.

Thus, as a master’s of public policy degree student at the University of Chicago, I’m still interested in education as a tool to build stronger communities, and in policies that help to strengthen schools in underserved neighborhoods like those on Chicago’s South Side.

Increasing STEM opportunities in magnet schools

For my MSAP internship, I was assigned to research science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education in magnet schools. STEM is more than just an ED priority — it’s a federal objective that extends across agencies, from the Environmental Protection Agency to NASA. The Obama Administration, through Educate to Innovate, has made American competitiveness in STEM a national priority, and there’s now heightened awareness and interest in STEM education across the country.

I found that magnet schools work to promote quality STEM education in many ways. More than 80 percent of MSAP-funded schools in 2013 were STEM-themed, and ED grants helped those schools to hire qualified science teachers, buy technology equipment like microscopes and robots, and outfit school science labs. More than 80 percent of the OII-funded magnet schools are in low-income communities, helping to make STEM opportunities available to everyone.

At EP Foster STEM Academy’s Energy Day, students learn about STEM careers through hands-on activities. (Photo courtesy of Ventura Unified School District)

It’s illuminating to see some of the creative and interesting ways magnet schools are adopting models of STEM instruction for their classrooms, from elementary through high school. Some schools have implemented hands-on experiences in everything from gardening and meteorology to engineering and design, and they’ve teamed up with colleges, businesses, and community organizations to get their students out in the field, opening up a whole new range of career-related opportunities.

Last year, for example, EP Foster STEM Academy in Ventura, Calif., hosted an “Energy Day” event that brought Siemens engineers from the community to the school to lead science and engineering activities and presentations about STEM careers.

Competitiveness in STEM will have vital implications for the American economy, and STEM education can play a key role helping to ensure that millions of new high school graduates are college- and career-ready in the global economy.

Finding a new perspective

Interning at ED has meant a chance to dig into a lot of data, looking for the threads that can help ED to make smarter, faster decisions and better support students. Before starting at ED, I’d had a chance to see how policy decisions at the local level manifested on the ground, in schools. Now, from the federal level, I’ve had the opportunity to see the broader impact of policy decisions as they play out on the American education landscape.

That in itself is a lot of fun, and it was great to have the chance to support the thousands of STEM educators working to create more opportunities for students in magnet schools. It made for an engaging, rewarding summer at ED.

Matt Repka was a 2014 summer intern in the Office of Innovation and Improvement.