schools divided

Fewer affluent kids will have an edge in magnet school admissions under likely IPS diversity plan

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

The state’s largest school district is moving forward with a plan to help diversify its coveted magnet schools that could give low-income applicants a leg up in the admissions lottery.

But attracting new families is an ambitious and challenging goal, and experts say success will depend on the commitment and investment from the district.

The vast majority of students in Indianapolis Public Schools are black or Hispanic and nearly seven in 10 are low-income. But at a handful of the district’s most sought-after magnet schools, the demographics don’t reflect the district as a whole. The schools, which offer admissions priority to students who live in well-to-do neighborhoods where they’re located, enroll many more affluent, white students.

It’s an inequality that was identified in a series on school segregation in Indianapolis from Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI. The series exposed the role admission lottery rules play in exacerbating the isolation of the district’s magnets.

IPS leaders say they are committed to solving the problem and they plan to discuss ways to admit more diverse populations to the district’s popular magnets at a school board meeting this month.

Experts say that the district will need to do more than modify lottery rules to attract diverse students. It will also need to ramp up recruitment and retention work among low-income families.

“This is bigger than … a school district magnet lottery,” said Claire Smrekar, a researcher who has been studying magnet schools for more than 25 years. “It’s about neighborhood context.”

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

The district’s current magnet school admissions rules prioritize students who live within about a mile of certain schools such as the Centers for Inquiry, Montessori schools and the Butler Lab program at School 60. Those schools typically have long waitlists and award spots by lottery, and since many of the schools are located in higher-income areas, the rules make it harder for students from lower-income neighborhoods to score seats.

School board members appear to have reached a consensus that the best way to address the edge given to higher-income kids is to shrink the priority boundaries surrounding the schools.

“I really support sort of looking at shrinking those proximity boundaries,” said board member Kelly Bentley. That, she said, will “allow for more families outside of that boundary to have an opportunity to go to the school.”

Board president Mary Ann Sullivan also asked the administration to consider a strategy that would go a step further by setting aside seats specifically for low-income students at the schools. She said she may support setting aside seats if it’s necessary to promote diversity.

The district could have even more control over the demographics at schools by targeting certain neighborhoods for recruitment and using census data to set lottery priority based on each student’s address, Smrekar said. (Even if the district’s goal is increasing racial diversity in schools, explicitly using race as a factor in the lottery is illegal.)

The board aims to change the admission rules as early as this fall.

But while lottery rules that seem to favor more privileged families have ignited impassioned criticism in the community, experts say they are just a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to diversifying magnet schools.

Smrekar, who is a professor at Vanderbilt University and has consulted for the civil rights division of the U.S. Department of Justice, said that changes in admission policies must also be paired with a clear strategy for ensuring that low-income and black and Hispanic families know about their magnet school options, apply for admission and stay in the schools once they enroll.

One of the most important ways of recruiting families is doing outreach in their communities instead of expecting them to come to the district for information, she said. That means taking steps like hosting meetings at places where families are comfortable, such as churches, workplaces and community centers.

The people reaching out to prospective families can be central office staff, teachers or community members hired specifically for recruitment, Smrekar said. They just need to be good at communicating with families about what the magnet schools can offer their children.

“The geography of opportunity for a lot of these families is quite limited because of income and transportation and language,” she said. “(It) requires a larger effort by the school district to penetrate that and to appear both trustworthy … and committed to these goals of increasing diversity.”

The board has asked the administration to come up with a plan for marketing that would be rolled out alongside changes to lottery rules.

Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is supportive of some changes aimed at diversifying the schools, including increasing recruitment efforts and modifying the lottery rules. But he also said it is “odd” to expect magnet schools to be more diverse than the neighborhoods where they are located.

“There’s things that we can do, but I still believe that our schools reflect their neighborhoods and the community by and large.” Ferebee said. “My focus is ensuring that there’s a quality school in every neighborhood.”

Even if the district and schools are able to attract more diverse students, maintaining diversity is a constant balancing act for schools, Smrekar said.

Parents who chose their schools because of the International Baccalaureate or Montessori magnet programs may have legitimate fears that the influx of new families who were actively recruited are not as dedicated to the model, she said. Research also shows that white families are reluctant to keep their students in schools that are majority black or Hispanic.

Keeping new students at the schools can also be a challenge, she said. Schools have to work to create a welcoming climate for their families and build relationships with their parents.

“It’s one thing to reach out, but it’s another thing to maintain that enrollment and retention,” Smrekar said. “Does the district have the commitment and the capacity to move through this process from community engagement to retaining and keeping these families?”

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that IPS board president Mary Ann Sullivan has not yet decided whether to support setting aside seats for low-income students.

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.