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Excellent school series: Multicultural Magnet School

Page 2 of 3

By Connie Matthiessen

No fancy gym, but a wealth of benefits

MMS provides tangible benefits to be sure: every student learns a second language — either Spanish or Portuguese — beginning in kindergarten, all kids get the opportunity to play a musical instrument, and the emphasis on cultural diversity makes for a rich and varied curriculum. From kindergarten through fourth grade, a multicultural teacher provides weekly lessons in music, art, and other cultural traditions from around the world. There is a multicultural show at the end of every school year, featuring music and dance from different countries, and MMS families bring dishes from every corner of the globe to potlucks organized by the school's parent organization.

The school, founded 32 years ago, is one of a cluster of Bridgeport magnet schools established to foster and maintain racial diversity in the city's public school system. MMS's sister magnet schools, High Horizon (GreatSchools Rating 7) and Park City (GreatSchools Rating 6)  are also relatively high performing — and each has a distinct theme: High Horizons is language arts, Park City's is science and technology. Multicultural Magnet's theme from the start was cultural diversity, as expressed in its original school slogan, "Different is dynamite!"

Patrick Riccard, executive director of ConnCAN, a nonprofit organization that evaluates the state's schools for its annual "Success Story Schools," where MMS consistently makes the top ten list, has identified some of the elements common to the schools that make the list. Says Riccard, "We've found five criteria these schools share: a culture of excellence, strong leadership, great teachers, relentless use of data, and strong community [including parent] support."

Factors like great teachers and strong leadership are indisputable but also highly subjective, and many schools that don’t perform like MMS will claim the same. But the other factors bear closer scrutiny.

"Today, Vice President; tomorrow the world!"

If schools have personalities, Multicultural Magnet School's is that of a giddy kid who can’t stop peppering you with good news and exciting plans for the future. From the moment you walk through the door, you’re assaulted with colorful posters, murals, and accolades to student success. Signs of high expectations embellish every wall of the school. "Start with a dream, finish with a future" cheers a poster on the main office wall, a theme echoed in hand-drawn student government campaign posters pinned on bulletin boards and classroom doors, including one that boasts, "Today, Vice President; tomorrow the world!"

"The school has an absolute focus on student achievement," says Maria Zambrano, executive director of Excel Bridgeport, a nonprofit organization working to close the achievement gap at Bridgeport schools. Zambrano, who graduated from MMS, attended a neighborhood school before transferring to MMS in middle school. "MMS embraces student achievement as a great thing, encouraging students to do their best and to think about college from an early age. This was definitely not the educational climate at a lot of the other Bridgeport schools, and when I got to MMS, it was entirely new."

A relentless eye on student progress

Administrators and teachers at MMS are scrupulous about monitoring each student's progress, according to Principal Helen Moran. "We're constantly gathering data and as soon as it's evident that a student is struggling, we jump on it and give that student extra help, before a weakness becomes a serious problem."

MMS has a literacy coach and a numeracy coach who work closely with teachers to identify problems; and kids who are struggling in either reading or math work with the coaches one-on-one or in small groups. English language learners get extra help from specialists in the school's "Language Lab." Middle school teachers give regular pop quizzes to evaluate how well students are grasping new material, and how lessons can be improved.

ConnCAN's Riccard believes this kind of student assessment and support is essential, pointing out that, "We hear a lot about testing, everybody is testing, but far too often nothing is being done with the results. Schools need to use the data to focus on the kids who are having problems and give them the support they need."

(Some aspects of MMS's culture that resemble high-achieving charters like the KIPP schools — hard-driving, high-performing college preparatory schools intent on closing the achievement gap —  have been integral to MMS's educational philosophy from the start, according to principal Moran).

Connie Matthiessen is an associate editor at GreatSchools.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

05/9/2012:
"I go to this school! sure Im not rich but i get a good education. "
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School entrance
Principal Helen Moran
Word of the week
"Different is dynamite"
Computer room