Iowa City School District considers magnet schools


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The Iowa City School District is looking at magnet schools as an option following the passing of the diversity policy and revenue purpose statement.

Magnet schools are public elementaries or secondary schools that attempt to create an academic focus on a chosen theme and bring students of different backgrounds together.

“What a magnet school is, you take a school that has a high free- and reduced-lunch rate and you create a program that will attract children from all over the district,” School Board member Sarah Swisher said.

The goal to draw students of different socioeconomic backgrounds mirrors that of the recently passed diversity policy. The magnet schools would have the same administrative structure and follow the same state-set regulations.

“There is room to make adjustments,” Swisher said. “We have this university full of help and a college of music and art that could help contribute to really great magnet schools in our district.”

While charter and magnet elementary schools are not common in Iowa, one former charter school may provide insight for the district.

Elma Elementary, located in the Howard-Winneshiek School District, lost its charter designation in 2010. Charter schools are similar to magnet schools. They aim to use progressive teaching methods or specialty programs to educate students.

Todd Knobloch, the principal of Elma Elementary, said because Elma is located 27 miles away from all other schools in the district, it faced challenges that led to the state rescinding its status.

“I think a lot of it depends on where you’re located,” Knobloch said. “We faced a little bit more declining enrollment, and we weren’t able to keep up with all the aspects [Elma Elementary] was designed to do to begin with.”

But Assistant Superintendent Becky Furlong said the Iowa City School District’s growing enrollment of 200 to 400 additional students each year is consistent and will likely continue to grow in the future.

But despite the enrollment consistency, Furlong has reservations for the program at this stage.
“I think it has merit, but it’s early,” she said.

While Furlong waits for more research, two School Board members are ready for conversations to begin regarding the district’s latest option.

“I do think there are several different types of magnet schools that could be draws for our district,” School Board Vice President Karla Cook said. “I actually think depending on the program, [it] could be either high school or elementary schools.”

International baccalaureate programs, another interest for Cook, allow students to earn college credit during classes through advanced-placement or dual-credit programs.

Central Academy, a magnet school in the Des Moines Community School District, offers Advanced Placement programs. The average Academy student takes 5.85 AP exams while in high school compared to the national average of three exams per student.

Other types of magnet schools include foreign-language schools and music schools, where students become efficient on a musical instrument by the time they reach sixth grade.

Despite the complexity of drawing students across the district, Swisher said the district wouldn’t face issues with declining enrollment.

“I think you still support neighborhood schools and magnet schools because you’d be recruiting a few students — it’s not like you’d be switching kids out of the district,” Swisher said.

While the board continues to discuss its options, magnet schools might be a major possibility.

“We have to figure out what attracts people back in,” Swisher said. “That’s our job, and [magnet schools] are the only way to get there.”

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