More students want to go to popular IPS magnet schools, but they still face barriers to getting in

One year in, Indianapolis’ new system for applying to magnet and charter schools has helped make school choice fairer and more accessible for low-income families — but barriers remain for getting into some of the city’s most popular schools, a new report Thursday showed.

More low-income families are applying earlier to schools, increasing their chances of getting into schools of their choice, according to the annual report from Enroll Indy, the organization that handles how families enroll in Indianapolis Public Schools magnet programs, some innovation schools, and most charter schools in the city.

Families who look for schools later in the year, who are more likely to be low-income, now still get a shot at seats even if they miss the first deadline. And 1,000 more families are applying to magnet programs, the report said.

“A lot of people have thought about creating great schools in Indianapolis, but not a lot of people have been thinking about it from a parent demand perspective: What do families want, and how do we consider what they want?” said Caitlin Hannon, Enroll Indy’s founder and executive director. “Hopefully our work over time will inform those decisions, so it really is parents and families driving positive change, versus a top-down district or city or Mind Trust effort.”

But the report also shows that some inequities in Indianapolis Public Schools still persist: There still aren’t enough seats at the city’s most sought-after magnet programs to meet the increasing demand. At three out of six of the popular Center for Inquiry and Butler University Laboratory schools, which are mostly clustered in more affluent neighborhoods, only those who live closest could get in last fall during the first round of admissions — and they claimed most of those schools’ open seats.

In the first round of applications, when the largest share of families were deciding where to send their children to school, the report showed that spots often filled up before admissions could be opened up to students who live more than half a mile away from the school, let alone in other parts of the district. While most other choice schools had enough spots for just about all interested students, kindergarten students in the first round had a 1-in-3 or 1-in-4 chance of getting into most of the Center for Inquiry or Butler Lab schools.

Some families reapplied later to try to win spots, but most did not. The district set aside seats for later rounds of enrollment, and even at the most popular schools, those opened up to serve a larger range of students. But there were fewer seats available, and even though fewer families were looking for seats, many still faced long odds of getting in.

“It’s frustrating,” said Kelly Bentley, a retiring school board member who represents the northside. “We need to expand them and spread the love. They shouldn’t be all concentrated in one part of town.”

Because the district prioritizes admission to students who live nearby, some of the most high-demand magnet programs enroll a disproportionate share of white students and students from middle-class families, instead of drawing a more diverse population from across the district.

The exclusivity of these popular magnet schools persists because of their locations largely in wealthier neighborhoods and in spite of a change in rules two years ago to make them available to more students beyond those who live the closest. The change followed a series on segregation from Chalkbeat and the Indianapolis Star that showed how the district gave the most privileged families in the district an admission edge at sought-after schools.

Initially, district officials said the policy change helped increase the racial and socioeconomic diversity of those schools. It’s unclear whether the magnet schools became any more or less diverse this year, racially or socioeconomically, because Enroll Indy doesn’t track demographic data. School-level enrollment data is expected to be released by the state in coming weeks.

The district continues to struggle with the tension over making those high-quality magnet schools available to all students — both those who live nearby and those who live in other parts of the city. District officials say that the magnet schools help retain families who might otherwise seek private school or township school options. The northside has one F-rated neighborhood school, School 43, that serves mostly black and mostly poor students.

“It’s a double-edged sword,” Bentley said. “You have a whole bunch of people on the northside who, if they don’t get into one of those programs, they’re probably going elsewhere. But then you have a whole bunch of people who live outside of this area who want the opportunity to go to those programs as well, and they’re not able to get in.”

At the Center for Inquiry School 70, the report said 463 students were competing for 54 kindergarten seats. The school opened in 2016 to some criticism over its Meridian Kessler location, since the northside was already home to the Center for Inquiry School 84. According to the report, both School 70 and School 84’s first round of available seats filled with children who lived within the half-mile proximity zone.

At the Center for Inquiry School 27 on the near-northside, where demand was smaller, kindergarten students had better chances of getting in, and location wasn’t as much of a limiting factor. Students from across the district were considered for admission in the first and third rounds.

In this year’s enrollment process, which opened Thursday, families will have just two rounds to apply.

These most sought-after programs saw more applications last year in part because of Enroll Indy’s targeted outreach efforts in low-income neighborhoods to close what Hannon called the “information gap,” by telling families about their options and how the system works. Higher participation, she said, means more families know about their options.

The programs also saw more applications because families could apply to all Center for Inquiry sites, rather than applying to the program and getting placed by the district at the closest location, said Patrick Herrel, Indianapolis Public Schools’ director of enrollment and options.

While the district has been examining whether and where it can expand its most popular programs, officials say they want to be strategic in those decisions. It also takes time to replicate those programs after this year’s new IPS/Butler Lab School 55 and the Center for Inquiry School 70 in 2016, because they use a model that relies on experienced teachers in existing schools to launch new sites.

“We’re always trying to figure out what it is that our families want,” Herrel said.