Getting your Evanston news from Facebook? Try the Evanston RoundTable’s free daily and weekend email newsletters – sign up now!

On Feb. 16, the District 65 Magnet School Planning Committee presented its report to the School Board, recommending that Dr. Bessie Rhodes Magnet School focus on inquiry and connections to the global community and that Martin Luther King Jr. Laboratory School focus on fine arts and emphasize literature and writing. Both would remain K-8 magnet schools.

Cathy Berlinger-Gustafson, the Committee’s facilitator and consultant, said she thought the themes would generate increased interest, help improve student achievement, and enhance the District’s ability to balance student enrollment in the District’s other schools.

The Magnet School Committee met eight times over three months, reviewed literature on the structure and function of magnet schools, considered numerous potential themes for the schools, and conducted on-site visits to magnet schools. The Committee was composed of 21 persons: three administrators; the principals, six teachers and nine parents from the magnet schools; and a parent from Walker School.

Purposes of the Magnet Schools

One important purpose of the magnet schools is to relieve overcrowding in the District’s attendance area schools. The magnet schools do this by accepting – or drawing away – students from attendance area schools which have a high or excessive number of students at one or more grade levels. In addition, the magnet schools offer an alternative educational choice to parents.

Ms. Berlinger-Gustafson said offering strong, distinctive instructional programs at the magnet schools would generate increased interest in the magnet schools and attract more applications to attend those schools. This would enhance the District’s ability to use the magnet schools to balance the enrollment at the attendance area schools, said Assistant Superintendent Susan Schultz.

Ms. Berlinger-Gustafson added that research shows that students who attend magnet schools generally do better academically because parents have elected to send their children to the schools and are committed to the curriculum and theme. She said the presence of magnet schools also raises parents’ expectations of all schools and, as a result, the District’s other schools tend to do better.

The Recommended Themes

Ms. Berlinger-Gustafson said the Committee recommends that Bessie Rhodes, which has traditionally been known as a technology school, focus on global studies. She said the school’s curriculum would start with the District’s curriculum, but it would integrate that curriculum with global content to foster increased knowledge and skills about the world so “students would be prepared for success in our globally integrated world.”

The Committee recommends that technology be used as an instructional and communication tool to develop partnerships and allow interaction with schools around the world, that sister school relationships allow for teacher and student exchanges, and that K-5 students receive daily instruction in Spanish and K-8 students instruction in Mandarin Chinese.

As to King Lab, which has traditionally been considered a fine arts school, the Committee recommends a focus on fine arts and an emphasis on literature and writing. The school will ensure that the arts are addressed as independent core subjects as well as integrated into other curriculum areas; that literacy instruction focus on reading and writing, with an emphasis on writing for publication, and include speech and debate; and that fine arts also be integrated into the core content areas.

Student performances, exhibitions and publications will be used to demonstrate and assess learning; and partnerships will be established with university fine arts departments and with working artists, says the Committee’s report.

Ms. Schultz said, “These magnet schools, like all schools in the District, will be teaching to the District’s curriculum, to the State’s standards, but there are ways to do that, there are ways to integrate and to support the themes as well. It can be done and can be done in the attendance area schools.”

Board member Tracy Quattrocki said it was good to hear “we can have more creativity” in presenting the District’s curriculum in the schools. She suggested exporting what was learned in presenting the curriculum in new ways at the magnet schools to the attendance area schools.

The report also contains recommendations concerning the magnet school selection process, staffing, principals, design of the facilities, professional development and other issues.

Selection of the Themes

Board president Keith Terry asked why math and science was not selected as a theme.

Ms. Schultz said the Committee discussed a math and science academy at length and that members of the Committee visited a magnet school that had that focus. “We didn’t see the distinction of that focus. We do have a strong math curriculum in our District. It’s a strength for our whole District. We were looking for something that is more distinctive than what is offered at other schools,” she said.

Several Board members asked what other themes were considered by the Committee. Ms. Berlinger-Gustafson said the Committee considered a wide range of themes and approaches, including themes such as global studies and sustainability; instructional models, such as International Baccalaureate and “multiple intelligences”; and specific disciplines, such as fine arts, engineering, and math and science.

She said members of the Committee tried to think through what each of these themes would look like, and they visited five magnet schools in Chicago to gain insight about how schools with various themes would operate. They settled on the global studies and fine arts themes.

Cost and Next Steps

Several Board members expressed concern about the cost. In a memorandum to the Board, Superintendent Hardy Murphy said, “Enhanced staffing, some facilities updates, professional development, and instructional materials will be needed.” At this stage, the specific costs have not been determined.

Ms. Schultz said, “There will have to be investment in the schools to get these themes in place.” She added, though, that it was not contemplated that the operating expenses per student would be greater than at other schools.

Board member Katie Bailey raised another issue. Against a background where the District is facing overcrowding at several schools, Ms. Bailey said it was hard to have conversations about the magnet schools separate and apart from conversations about managing student enrollment.

As one way to manage student enrollment, she suggested placing a strand of the Two Way Immersion, TWI, program at Bessie Rhodes and making it part of a global studies program. The strand of TWI would be relocated from a school that is facing space issues.

Ms. Quattrocki suggested moving the strands of TWI from Willard and Dewey to King Lab, which would help relieve overcrowding at Willard and Dewey. She suggested that King Lab could be made a foreign language academy.

Mr. Terry urged that an “investigation team,” not an “implementation team,” be authorized to investigate the Committee’s recommendations further, the finance question in particular, and then report back to the Board. He said the investigation team should assume that the magnet schools would have the same allotment of dollars per student as the other schools. “The assumption is we’re not sending one additional penny to Bessie Rhodes or King Lab,” he said.

Dr. Murphy tried to leave some wiggle room, saying if the investigation team came back with a proposal that increased the costs, “we’d have to justify it.” He said the investigation team would present its report in December, “with plans for implementation in the following year.”

Ms. Quattrocki sought some clarification on what the investigation team would be investigating. She said some things might need to be fleshed out in terms of ways of using the magnet schools to manage student enrollment at other schools. “There may be some modifications that may need to be looked at,” she said. Mr. Terry said the Committee’s recommendations were not approved, and they could be modified.