Indianapolis Schools Divided

IPS board approves changes to magnet admission, opening doors to more diverse schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students at the Center for Inquiry at School 27.

Beginning next year, low-income students and children of color will have a better chance of admission to the most sought-after magnet programs in Indianapolis Public Schools.

At least that’s the intent of a plan approved Thursday night by the IPS school board that changes admission rules for the coveted programs, allowing more kids to win admission from outside the largely affluent neighborhoods where many of the schools are located and giving families more time to apply.

The board hopes the changes will make the process fairer for families and increase diversity in the district’s most popular schools.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to reintegrate,” said board member Gayle Cosby. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

The change comes in the wake of a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star that exposed how the old rules gave the most privileged families in the district an admission edge at sought-after schools.

All five members of the board who were present voted for the change, but some parents were skeptical. There was enough opposition from members of the community that Board President Mary Ann Sullivan held a last minute meeting this morning with dozens of parents who had reached out to the district. Many of the critics came from neighborhoods that will no longer have priority in admissions to the district’s top magnet schools.

Parents also raised concerns about the changes to the priority boundaries at the board meetings this week.

Hannah Kiger, a parent of two children at Center for Inquiry School 27, spoke Thursday about her experience as a resident in the Fall Creek neighborhood, an area where children will no longer get an advantage in admission to School 27.

When Kiger moved to the neighborhood, she said families she knew would leave when they had children because they did not like the public school nearby. After she and her husband had a daughter, they began looking at schools, she said.

“I was delighted to find out that the public school that she was districted for had become a magnet school,” Kiger said. “It gave us a good, realistic option for her.”

Kiger criticized the board’s process for developing the new plan, saying it did not take the neighborhood demographics into consideration and there were not enough opportunities for input from parents.

But there were also supporters of the new lottery rules.

Troy Montigney, also a resident of Fall Creek, said that making the schools more accessible to low-income families would help increase opportunities for children to escape poverty.

“Parents can choose from many high-quality education options,” he said. “Unfortunately, not everyone as the plan currently exists has the same opportunity to pursue learning at the schools affected by this decision.”

District staff expect that the changes will increase diversity at the most popular magnet schools because under the old rules, white students were much more likely to win spots than other students. At the Center for Inquiry Schools, for example, more than half of the kids who were admitted to the schools are white while just a third of the kids on the waitlist are white. Most of the kids who applied and didn’t get in were black or Hispanic.

That’s in part because the admission rules at the schools gave an edge to some of the most privileged students in the district by giving preference to students who live within about a mile of the schools. The schools’ early application also favored high-income families who are more likely to be savvy about school applications

Under the new rules, the district will continue to give families who live near magnet schools an advantage in the magnet lottery, but the priority boundary will be smaller, opening more seats for students who live in other parts of the city.

The deadline for applying for spots in the magnet schools will also be extended, with the addition of two lotteries later in the year so that families who don’t make their choice by the early-January deadline for the first lottery still have a chance of winning spots.

“I know that not everyone is going to be personally happy with these changes,” Sullivan said. “But in a sense, this problem is something that we should be celebrating, because we actually have more interest in our schools than we are able to meet.”

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.