A pair of elementary schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan district are about to undergo a curriculum makeover.

Echo Park Elementary in Burnsville and Oak Ridge Elementary in Eagan will turn into magnet schools in 2016, a switch district officials hope will balance out higher concentrations of minority students and offer students more educational options.

“The magnet school opportunity has been something that nationally has been a proven process [to encourage desegregation],” said Cathy Kindem, the district’s teaching and learning director.

The school board recently approved the two magnet schools’ new over-arching themes — leadership and Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) — which emerged as top choices in surveys of parents and staff and several community meetings. At Echo Park, there will be added focus on engineering and technology. Oak Ridge will focus on environmental and health sciences.

Many parents said they support the transition to magnet schools — the district already has several — but some have questioned the themes the district chose. One group of parents said they wished additional ideas, like language immersion, had been considered more seriously.

“I’m not against these other possible themes, but I guess I am surprised by the passivity of the district,” said Ann Knudson, parent of a 2-year-old. “I feel like it’s an open question of, how representative were these [survey] results?”

Leadership and STEM seemed more promising, Kindem said, given that Diamond Path already focuses on world languages and immersion programs require a multiyear commitment from parents.

By the end of this year, Echo Park and Oak Ridge will hire new principals and leadership teams of teachers will be created. Then, the 2015-16 school year will be spent planning, with teacher training opportunities, Kindem said.

Past experience

The magnet schools strategy has proved successful elsewhere in the district, said Rob Duchscher, school board member.

The original magnet schools were created after the Minnesota Department of Education listed three district elementary schools as “racially identifiable” in 2006. The label means that there is more than a 20 percentage-point difference between those schools’ percentage of minority students and the district average at elementary schools.

At that point, the district was required to make a plan for Cedar Park, Diamond Path and Glacier Hills. The schools became magnet schools, with Cedar Park focusing on STEM, Diamond Path on international studies and Glacier Hills on arts and sciences.

The schools enroll kids in their attendance area first, but any additional slots are open to other students through a lottery process. If the school attracts more white students, the school is no longer “racially identifiable.”

“I remember years ago when there was a level of … constructive skepticism, meaning were [the magnet schools] going to be successful?” Duchscher said. “Clearly, they have been highly successful.”

Over time, the schools have effectively evened out concentrations of students of color at Glacier Hills, while Cedar Park is almost consistent with the district’s average percentage of minority students.

They have also been popular with families. Together, the schools have a waiting list of 344 students, Kindem said.

This year, when Oak Ridge and Echo Park received that same “racially identifiable” designation from the state, the district decided to expand its magnet school offerings, Duchscher said.

“It’s something parents want,” he said.

Themes emerge

The district asked parents what magnet themes they wanted at the schools through a voluntary online survey, completed by 2,682 parents. Administrators used staff surveys, information from parent nights and the existing waiting lists to whittle down the list of choices.

STEM and leadership were the top contenders, Kindem said, with administrators narrowing the STEM focus a bit at each school. The leadership theme “surprised us all,” said Duchscher, but Kindem said it has “growing momentum” as a magnet theme nationally.

World language came in third, with 73 percent of parents saying they were “very interested” in it.

Shikha Jain Goodwin, mom of a 2-year-old who will attend school in the district, spoke at a recent school board meeting, discussing the benefits of language immersion programs. She said she was disappointed that parents of young kids weren’t surveyed about their preferences.

Along with Knudson, she collected 120 signatures from parents interested in immersion, Goodwin said.

Duchscher said he heard more demand for other types of magnet programs, but he believes an immersion school is a future option.

Goodwin said she hopes the district can make it happen by the time her daughter is in school.

“I still have so much passion and energy for this because it would be good for everyone. It’s not just my kid,” Goodwin said.