AI magnet school: Why this superintendent is launching one

Superintendent Diane Gullett’s newest AI magnet school combines several of today’s top learning trends: technology, career prep and entrepreneurship, to name a few.

Diane Gullett magnet schools
Diane Gullett

Marion County Public Schools’ Artificial Intelligence Magnet Program will enroll its first students in the 2024-25 school year and “connect emerging and existing technology into core classes and electives” that lead to industry certifications, explains Gullett, who has led the North Florida district since 2020.

“Since a core component of our strategic plan also focuses on entrepreneurship, this could lead to additional ways students can launch into using artificial intelligence in the future as we increase efficiency and outcomes in the marketplace,” says Gullet of the program that is powered by a partnership with the University of Florida.

District Administration recently interviewed Gullett about the unique aspects of leading a district with a wide range of magnet programs that span all grade levels. Here’s what she had to say.

1. Let’s start with an overview of your district’s programs. Just how many magnet schools do you operate?

“Marion County Public Schools offers a variety of magnet programs that provide a broad range of choices for students who want to learn more about specific careers or specialized academic areas.

Since the 2020-2021 school year, we added eight new programs, including the first districtwide early learning academy focused on literacy and music to prepare our youngest learners for a strong academic future. Students at Fordham Early Learning Academy can engage as 3-year-old learners, and families are encouraged to attend a unique Stepping Stone collaborative experience that covers birth to 3–year–olds. The Fordham Early Learning Academy partners with the Marion County Hospital District to offer support in food and nutrition.

All high schools have at least one academic program, such as Cambridge or International Baccalaureate, and they also have at least one career magnet program, such as engineering or manufacturing. Additionally, five middle schools and seven elementary schools offer magnet programs. These magnet programs provide learning opportunities in STEAM, visual and performing arts, aviation, equine and artificial intelligence.

In the upcoming year, we are excited to offer our first dual language program in the district at Saddlewood Elementary. Three middle school programs offer academic magnet programs as well.”

2. What’s unique about leading a district that prioritizes magnet programs?

“Our vision in Marion County Public Schools is “Helping Every Student Succeed.” Providing choice and access to high-quality learning ensures that every student is afforded the pathway to a bright future.

Magnet programs play a vital role in offering unique experiences and options for students. Providing specialized, rigorous curriculum and high-interest topics helps students explore careers and academic pathways that students may not have realized without a specific magnet program. These options ensure that regardless of a student’s background, they can thrive in a challenging and innovative environment. Magnet programs truly elevate choice and access for every student.”

3. How does the district “market” its magnets – in other words, how do you and your team make families and students aware of the programs and get them excited to participate?

“Marion County Public Schools utilizes several different marketing strategies. However, the largest outreach occurs in the late fall and early winter. In late fall, we host a Magnet Program Expo for families and community members. This expo is an opportunity for all schools that offer magnet programs to gather in one location. The schools showcase their magnet programs and successes at this expo event with many hands-on activities.

Families and community members who attend the expo can visit all schools and hear about their magnet programs. Families can talk with school staff about the coursework and hear from students who attend the magnet programs. This is a great way for families to learn about magnet school options.

Shortly after this expo and through early winter, schools host Magnet School Showcases where families can visit the school, meet school staff, explore the magnet programs in more detail and hear about other opportunities each school offers.”

4. How do magnet programs promote student success and what outcomes are you measuring?

“Students in academic, high school magnet programs can earn college credit or special diplomas recognized by colleges and universities. The magnet programs also promote success for students who want to enter the workforce after high school. Many magnet programs offer industry certifications that help students land careers right out of high school.

We currently measure high school graduation rates, program completion and industry certifications; however, we are developing a system to identify students and track even more data such as attendance, proficiency and learning gains.

One specific way we have engaged deeply with the community for student success is by launching the first-of-its-kind, state-approved curriculum for our equine magnet at North Marion High School. As the “Horse Capital of the World,” this was an area I immediately recognized as a need coming to this community. We have a huge demand for the workforce and this program now provides a pathway to local and state collegiate programs. It has been well supported by the many generous equine partners who support the magnet program at the high school and engage with all of our schools, beginning in the elementary schools to provide hands-on learning on what this future can look like for our students.”

Matthew Zalaznick
Matthew Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.