Indianapolis Schools Divided

Will new lottery rules diversify IPS magnet schools?

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

Starting next school year, low-income children and students of color could have a better chance of winning spots at some of the most coveted schools in Indianapolis.

At least that’s the aim of a plan unveiled by Indianapolis Public Schools leaders this week that could change the way school admissions are decided at the city’s top schools, including Montessori and Centers for Inquiry schools, which typically receive more applications than they have seats and use lotteries to decide who to admit.

Critics have blasted the admissions lotteries as favoring higher-income, white families since they give priority to students who live near the schools and exclude families who aren’t aware of the need to apply before the January application deadline.

Now, however, the district board seems likely to support a proposal, scheduled for a vote next week, that would shrink the boundaries that give nearby families special access to magnet schools.

The proposal also would give families more time to apply.

The move follows a series of stories on segregation in the city’s schools from Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI that highlighted the unfair magnet lottery rules. The series will culminate in a discussion 6 p.m. tomorrow at the Indianapolis Central Library.

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

IPS decided not to set aside seats specifically for low-income families, an idea that was considered. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said the proposed changes to the lottery rules will likely be enough to level the playing field for families applying to magnet schools and increase diversity at some of the schools.

“We think that this is the fairest way to get at the goals we are trying to achieve,” Ferebee said. “If it doesn’t work, we will come back to the drawing board and it’s something that we will study.”

Last year, 110 children applied for the 44 kindergarten seats at School 84, one of the top performing magnet schools in IPS. But since children who live within about a mile of the school are admitted before the lottery is open to families from around the city, kids from outside the wealthy Meridian-Kessler neighborhood surrounding the school had little chance of admission.

In fact, with 67 applicants from within the proximity boundary, many local kids didn’t get seats either.

The proposal from IPS leaders would shrink the boundary around each magnet school to about half a mile.

(Scroll down to the bottom of the story for a detailed map of the proposed boundaries.)

If School 84 had used the smaller priority boundary last year, 30 children who applied would’ve received priority, leaving 14 kindergarten spots open to kids from around the district.

Districtwide, the new policy would open more than 200 kindergarten seats to students from outside proximity boundaries, according to the district.

“We’ve got to remember, we are talking about schools that we have told the public everyone has an option to get into, and we haven’t been really living up to that,” said School Board President Mary Ann Sullivan.

In addition to changing the boundaries, IPS is extending the enrollment period so that families who may not know about early application deadlines will still have a shot.

Last year, 3,980 children applied to the district’s magnet schools. But nearly half of those applications came in after the early January deadline.

The families who applied on time were much more likely to be high-income, according to district data. More than half of applicants who applied on time came from the highest-income neighborhoods in the city. Those high-income families made up less than a quarter of the applicants who applied late.

The district hopes to help more families qualify by creating two new admissions rounds. A mid-January admissions lottery (that mirrors the current timeline) would award 70 percent of seats. But 30 percent of seats would be held for lotteries in early March and late April, which are designed to give families who decide on schools later in the year a chance at admission. Most IPS schools don’t start enrolling kindergarteners until late May.

One reason district officials believe these changes would be enough to diversify magnet schools is because while students in magnet programs are more likely to be white than students in neighborhoods schools in IPS, the kids who apply for admission to the magnet schools are more diverse.

Joe Gramelspacher, an IPS staffer who drafted the plan, said that families of color want access to district magnet programs but the lottery rules are preventing them from winning admission.

“Our families want them, our school leaders are communicating them to diverse communities,” he said. “But our current policies … are getting in the way.”

Proposed magnet priority admission boundaries.
PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
Proposed magnet priority admission boundaries.
Current magnet priority admission boundaries.
PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
Current magnet priority admission boundaries.

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.