There are over 4,000 magnet schools in the U.S. Cedar Rapids Community School District has five of them. In fact, the district’s magnet schools offer Iowa’s only true kindergarten through eighth grade magnet model, and are the only that have received the Magnet Schools of America Merit Award and Standards of Excellence Certification in the state.
Cedar River Academy at Taylor Elementary School, Johnson STEAM Academy, and Kenwood Leadership Academy serve kindergarten through fifth grade students, while McKinley STEAM Academy and Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy serve middle school students. While students who live within the five magnet schools’ resident attendance zones are automatically eligible to enroll in their respective school, all area students are currently eligible to enroll via the magnet school lottery. The lottery closes on April 2, 2021, for the 2021-22 school year.
“My kids would tell you that they love their magnet schools,” explains Samantha Forquer, mother to two Johnson students—John and Kai’lynne—and one McKinley student—Natalie. “Not only that they’re magnet schools, but that the magnet schools are family.”
Every magnet school is built on the same five pillars: diversity, innovative curriculum and professional development, academic excellence, leadership, and family and community partnerships. With the five pillars forming a foundation, each magnet school then has a theme, which influences everything from the curriculum to day-to-day student life.
The five themes are as follows:
- Cedar River Academy focuses on sustainability of the environment, community, and self.
- Johnson STEAM Academy is a project-based learning environment focused on integrating science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics.
- Kenwood Leadership Academy focuses on leadership and 21st century skills.
- McKinley STEAM Academy is a blended learning environment focused on integrating science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics.
- Roosevelt Creative Corridor Business Academy is a project-based learning environment following the learning pathways of STEAM, leadership and entrepreneurship, and global systems.
“The goal is that when you're a student at our school, you view the curriculum—the standard Iowa Core curriculum that everyone has—through a lens of sustainability,” says Andrea Scott, principal at Cedar River Academy.
The theme-based focus aims to serve students well past the time they complete their magnet school experience.
“We kind of blew up the typical middle school schedule, taking the approach of what would make our students successful contributors to the community when they get older,” adds Kate Riley, sixth grade science teacher at Roosevelt. “Companies are looking for leaders and innovators; people who can collaborate with other people and get really creative.”
A choice within the district
The educational specialization is what distinguishes magnet schools from more traditional school settings.
“One of the exciting things about school choice within our district is that it’s aligned to our district’s theory of action. Innovation is one of our beliefs, and magnet schools are a beacon for innovation,” says Jillian Schulte, district magnet school coordinator. “That specialized programming is what makes school choice appealing, because it’s specialized programming, innovation, and those future-ready skill sets that our magnet schools are very robust in.”
In addition to her district role, Schulte, also a regional director for Magnet Schools of America, is the magnet coordinator for Kenwood Leadership Academy. She sees student empowerment as one of the strengths of the Kenwood experience.
“Students at Kenwood are empowered through classroom leader roles, through building-wide leader roles, and through teaching adults the seven habits of highly-effective people,” she explains. “We’ve just shifted the thinking of what is it that adults traditionally do, why do we do that, are kids just as effective at doing that, and would they maybe even be better at doing that.”
Kenwood students take this empowerment with them into the community, such as through the Leaders Who Lunch program, where students have lunch with community leaders and discuss leadership principles with them. “It’s so authentic because students are able to explain these habits and beliefs of leaders that they’ve learned to grown-ups,” explains Schulte. The program is continuing this year in a virtual format.
Students also take that empowerment with them when they leave Kenwood.
“Students leave Kenwood empowered to be leaders of their learning and leaders of their life,” says Schulte. “They leave able to advocate for themselves, they leave knowing they can set and achieve wildly important goals, and they leave knowing they have a voice, which is probably one of the best gifts we can help cultivate with kids.”
Beyond the classroom walls
A key aspect of magnet schools actually happens outside of the school building.
“Part of a magnet school is developing your partnerships with the community,” explains Scott. The school’s primary partner is Matthew 25, located within the school’s neighborhood. “They’ve been involved with our school for many years; they provide an educational consultant for us who runs large and small groups with us for various projects along with teachers.”
Cedar River Academy students have another project in the works—this one with Alliant Energy.
“Our students made a connection with Alliant Energy and made a whole project about a wind turbine at our school,” explains Scott. The first graders delivered a presentation to Alliant Energy, and elicited their help in bringing a turbine to the school grounds. “We’re exploring a mini-turbine. It could take a couple of years to figure out; we hope it will come to fruition before those first graders leave for fifth grade.”
An untraditional experience
The unconventional structure is what drew Riley, a teacher for 19 years, to magnet schools.
“When I was in school, I struggled to focus and sit still,” she explains. “I just remember thinking that I loved information, but school was hard because it’s so unnatural to sit at a desk all day and try and absorb and retain information.”
Not only is the project-based learning at Roosevelt an innovative approach, but the overall experience is also designed to elevate students’ expectations for their future.
“I hope students’ experience at Roosevelt raises their expectations of what they are capable of doing,” says Riley. “Also, I hope they expect more from whatever educational experience they have beyond us.”
Forquer has noticed a similar drive with her children that is a result of their magnet school experiences.
“Magnet schools are helping them understand the why behind the problem,” she explains. “They’re coming home and constantly doing things from school at home.”
Forquer is appreciative of her whole family’s experience.
“Our experience is great. I can’t complain about anything. Nobody goes unnoticed there, even parents.”