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Last Thursday, 57 educators from across the country visited Moore Square Magnet Middle School in downtown Raleigh. The tour was part of the Magnet Schools of America conference, which focused on Wake County’s leadership in diversity, equity, and choice. 

The goal of the tour, according to Monica Noa, the school’s magnet coordinator, was “to unpack Moore Square for you,” so the educators could take the lessons learned back to their own schools. 

Lessons about transition.  Lessons about instruction.  Lessons about community.

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Moore Square was built 12 years ago to accommodate 600 students – 200 in each of the three grades.  It sits on a city block just below the skyline, and it has always been tied and connected to the downtown community in important ways.  It began as a museums magnet with Paideia instruction.

The magnet theme: Then and now

Assistant Principal Marla Mondora says early on the exhibit spaces in the museums were an extension of the classrooms.  Instead of kids scurrying through a whole museum in one day for a field trip, students at Moore Square did deep dives, focusing on exhibits and tying the content of the exhibits to the content they were studying in the classes back at school.

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Assistant principal Marla Mondora with magnet coordinator Monica Noa

Paideia was the chosen approach to teaching.  Mondora says Paideia “makes the students own the learning.”  Only 10 percent of the lecture each day in class was about “must-know facts.”  The rest of the learning happened in teacher coached in-class projects and seminars using the Socratic method.

With the museums theme, enrollment never reached capacity and then it stagnated.  At the same time, the Wake County Public School System needed more AIG – that’s academically and intellectually gifted — options for students. 

So two years ago, the magnet theme changed.  The name?  Moore Square GT/AIG Basics/Museums Magnet Middle School.  The educators chuckled.  It’s a mouthful.  Mondora says the order is intentional, reflecting the school’s new priorities.

GT stands for gifted and talented.  This magnet theme reflects the idea that all students are gifted and the school experience is designed to nurture those gifts.  Students take up to 12 electives each year, and the school has about 125 electives it can choose from when deciding on the quarterly offerings.  Some electives run for a semester or year.  Mondora notes it is “important to pair teachers with electives they genuinely are motivated to teach.”

AIG Basics serves students identified as academically and intellectually gifted.  Students designated AIG in language arts are placed in clustered classes for language arts and social studies.  Students designated AIG for math are placed in clustered classes for math and science.  Clustered means the students are served in classes with other AIG students.  The fact that the school is small gives them the flexibility to place non-identified students with higher grades in the more challenging AIG classes.

Moore Square is also a member of the Global Schools Network, which means each child engages in teacher-coached global projects.  Last week was the school’s global showcase when every child in the school had work on display for parents and the community.

What happened to the museums theme and Paideia?  Core instruction comes first.  There are whole school field trips – earlier this year the school walked its way to the Museum of Natural Sciences stopping traffic for blocks.  There is a year-end trip for each grade.  Paideia is still used as an instructional best practice in core classes with teachers incorporating the Socratic method into instruction as they see fit.

Transition and change

With the change came lots of staff turnover:  70 percent.  Some staff retired.  Some relocated.  The school needed teachers that were committed to the GT/AIG theme.  Though the turnover was hard, Mondora says it was critical, allowing the administration to “repurpose the school and implement the new theme with fidelity.”

Steve Fine, an 8th grade social studies teacher
Steve Fine, an 8th grade social studies teacher

Eighth grade social studies teacher Steve Fine talked about a day in the life of a teacher at Moore Square.  He teaches four periods of social studies and then two periods of the American Politics elective.  That’s three preps:  Every day, Fine prepares a class plan for GT social studies, a class plan for AIG social studies, and a class plan for his elective.  “Teaching electives is an added stress,” he says, but only because he wants it to be just as rigorous as a core class.  The goal of the electives is to expose students to as much as possible in middle school with the hope that they will find something that they really want to pursue in high school.

With the change came a shift in demographics – both the number of students who were eligible for free and reduced price lunch, which went down, and the number of AIG students, which went up.  Now, of the students who attend Moore Square, 40 percent are assigned based on AIG identification, 20 percent are magnet students, and 20 percent are base students. 

Each school days consists of eight 45-minute periods allowing for four core classes (math, science, language arts, and social studies), three electives, and lunch.  Each student goes to lunch for 24 minutes and the other 24 minutes of that period is used for Moore Time – remediation for some students, enrichment for others.  No core classes are taught during eighth period – the last period of the day.

This year, some students only take two electives and the third elective period is used for intervention.  Next year, the school plans to do even more intervention.

A grant to fund change

The school applied for a MSAP (Magnet Schools Assistance Program) grant.  It amounts to $1.2 million over three years.  It will pay for laptop carts for every classroom.  Smart boards will be replaced with flat screen TVs.  Ipads will be used in art classes.  And as Mondora says, “the teachers have to be trained so its not just another piece of hardware in the building.”  This summer a group of teachers is going up to Harvard for professional development. 

The grant also will cover a consultant that will teach staff how to teach AIG better.  By the end of next year, all of the teachers in the building will be AIG certified.  Mondora says if teachers certified in AIG are good for some kids, then they are good for all kids.  The school is working to strengthen its elective offerings, and teachers have been invited to write elective curriculum so the schools can offer electives not offered anywhere else.

A primary focus of the grant is to strengthen the arts programming.  Piano labs will be installed.  The gym will be modified to use as a performance space.  Modifications are being made to the dance and music classrooms.

Implementing a magnet theme

And then the educators got to see the students and the teachers in electives and core classes throughout the school.  Moore Square is affectionately known as Moore Stairs by the students and teachers, and the visiting educators got a work out they might not have expected.

In one classroom, students were taking apart Vex car robots that they had built, programmed, and raced the day before our visit.  Jason says the most interesting part of the class is learning to code the robots with a wide variety of different commands.

The next class we visited was on “upcycling.”  John explains that upcycling is “reusing everyday regular trash to make something better.”  Here is a chair, complete with a drink holder inspired by Gabriel, made by a small group.

An artist in residence is working with students on a mural.

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In a dance class with seven students, a rubric has been handed out that sets the expectations for a dance this group of students will choreograph together.  The issue is racism.  The dance is on social injustice.  The idea is how to express emotion through modern dance.  It is Thursday, and the dance is due Monday.  The music?  Kelly Clarkson’s “I had a dream.”

“If you wanna lead, be a leader
If you wanna dream, be a dreamer
Climb to the top of that mountain and
Scream it

If you wanna teach, be a teacher
Remember that the footprints you’re leaving will tell us all who you really are”

– Kelly Clarkson, “I had a dream”

In a music class, students are learning percussion.  Jackie heads to the front of the class for a solo.  Her lips are pursed as she executes the piece flawlessly.  She sits down afterwards and pats herself on the back.

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Daofeng Liu is a native speaker teaching this class Mandarin Chinese.

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This science class, led by Juliana Martinez-Schultz, is testing cars that the students built to see how far each one goes and then figure out why.  Cameron exclaims, “My car went the furthest!”

Niki Cooper teaches language arts but also a very popular elective on film analysis.

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In this class, Marcia Langston incorporates movement and social studies with the students playing musical chairs to popular music, and the student left standing has to answer content-based questions.

These students answered the group’s questions about language arts, describing a reading strategy called UNRAAVEL: Underline the title, Now predict what the story is about, Run through and number the paragraphs, Are you reading the questions, Are the key words circled, Venture through the passage, Eliminate wrong answers, and Let the questions be answered.

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A part of downtown life

Moore Square remains a small school.  Most classes have between 20-22 students.  The interim principal, Danny Barnes, noted at the beginning of the day, “this is a wonderful facility and a school of which we are very proud.” 

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Transition is hard for schools.  The magnet theme changed.  The staff changed a lot.  The leadership is in transition.  But the school monitors and adjusts, holding on to the ideas that ground it. 

The only thing that hasn’t changed is the school’s place in the downtown community.  It still partners with museums.  RedHat offers it space for professional development.  Downtown businesses offer job shadowing opportunities.  There is a partnership with Campbell Law School.  Students serve as docents at the Contemporary Art Museum. And professionals come to the school to provide “authentic audiences,” as Mondora says, for the students.

She concludes,

“We are building our program as we are building our students for our community.”

Mebane Rash

Mebane Rash is the CEO and editor-in-chief of EducationNC and the N.C. Center for Public Policy Research.