With diversity efforts stalling at select IPS magnet schools, more lottery changes could be on the way

Indianapolis Public Schools leaders are contemplating changes to the lottery rules for magnet school admission after an effort to give students of color a better chance appears to have stalled at four popular schools.

The potential changes could include capping the number of students who have an edge in admission because they live nearby or a sibling who attends — or eliminating those preferences altogether. And there are also new proposals for giving priority to students from low-income families or overhauling the system to give “points” in the lottery for a variety of factors. It’s the beginning of the discussion, and changes would not affect admission for the upcoming school year.

Any changes to the rules would likely be controversial because they could make it more difficult for children who currently have an advantage, who are likely to be white and middle class, to win coveted spots. But the district is under pressure to increase racial and economic diversity in magnet schools because some of the most popular programs enroll a disproportionate share of white students.

“We believe our schools should look like the community they serve,” school board member Venita Moore said at a meeting where the rules were first discussed Monday. Although she didn’t commit to any policy changes, she said the board should consider changing admissions rules “if in fact we are truly trying to get racial equity throughout all of our schools.”

The district’s 17 magnet elementary and middle schools offer specialized programs such as International Baccalaureate and Montessori. They are a way of attracting families to the district who might otherwise send their children to private, charter, or nearby township schools. In fact, one of the challenges facing the board is deciding whether they would like the schools to mirror the students who live in the district or the students who attend district schools, who are more likely to be children of color, according to Patrick Herrel, enrollment director for the district.

The discussion comes two years after the board changed magnet admission rules 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.

The new rules aimed to give students from low-income families and children of color a better chance at admission to popular programs. Those changes included shrinking the proximity boundary that gives students who live near a school an edge in admission and reserving seats so families who missed the first deadline can apply in later lotteries.

The rule changes have “undeniably” helped, Herrel said. And when enrollment at all magnets is combined, their racial demographics mirror elementary and middle school students across the district.

But shifts in enrollment appear to have plateaued at some of the most popular schools.

Herrel zeroed in on four schools that stand out because they are exceptionally popular with families and enroll a disproportionate amount of white students in a district where just 21 percent of students are white.

At those schools, Herrel told the school board Monday, “you see two things: one, these four schools in aggregate serve a significantly higher percentage of white students, a significantly lower percentage of students of color. And two, it is getting worse over time.”

The schools the district is focusing on are the Butler Lab program at School 60 and three Centers for Inquiry — School 2, School 84, and School 70. The fourth CFI, School 27, was not included because although it is popular, it has more students of color, likely because it is in a diverse neighborhood.

How, when, and whether the district will take steps to increase the number of students of color in those four schools is uncertain. At this point, district leaders are focused on exploring options, officials said, and they gave no timeline for making a decision.

One way of making the schools more accessible to children of color would be by ending policies that give families who live near magnet schools and children who have siblings at the schools advantages in the magnet lottery — or capping the number of seats those rules apply to.

Of the kindergarteners admitted last year to the high-demand schools, 86 percent had priority in the lottery because they lived within a proximity zone, had a sibling at the school, or both, according to district data. Because the schools are in relatively affluent areas, the rules can limit access.

“Sibling priority and proximity priority really drive who gets access right now to these schools,” Herrel said.

Board members did not seem eager to remove the priority for children who had siblings enrolled. But they appeared more open to eliminating or capping the advantage for neighbors.

Another idea that drew some interest from the board was a proposal to reconfigure the lottery process so that children receive points based on several factors, such as whether they have siblings in the school, the census block they live in, and how close they are to the school.

While the issue is important, the four schools at the center of the discussion enroll less than 2,000 students, said board member Evan Hawkins.

“I don’t want to miss that component of tens of thousands of kids that are struggling right now in some of our schools,” Hawkins said. “Let’s not forget the fact that we are talking about somewhere between 5 and 10 percent of our total student population right now.”

Of the four schools, School 60 is something of an exception because, after years of increasing enrollment from white students, it has been able to reverse the trend and attract more students of color in recent years. In part that’s because families and school staff have done extensive outreach in the economically diverse surrounding neighborhood, said Principal Ron Smith. But changing the rules for admission also helped.

“Despite all of the efforts we’ve made, the changes that were made in recent years to the lottery process have helped us,” Smith said. “We’ve benefitted from not having the lottery all happen in one fell swoop in January.”