Sorting the Students

Will Indianapolis change its magnet admission rules to keep siblings together?

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Indianapolis Public Schools students learn at CFI 27.

With two daughters enrolled, Jennifer Anderson and her husband knew they loved the community at School 27. But when it came time to enroll the couple’s youngest daughter in kindergarten, they got painful news: She had not won a seat in the first enrollment lottery because district policy prioritized other students.

“It’s incredibly important to my husband and I that all of our children attend the same school,” Anderson told the Indianapolis Public Schools Board last week as she pled for them to make an exception for her daughter. “I refuse to break the hearts of my children due to misplaced priorities.”

Anderson was among a handful of parents whose children had not won seats at the highly sought after Center for Inquiry schools their siblings attended. But now, the board is considering changing its rules to give siblings a better chance at winning seats.

The situation reflects a broader challenge facing Indianapolis’ largest school district. In recent years, the district has replicated popular programs and made them more accessible for children from low-income families. But nearly every move to expand access to sought-after schools has been met with resistance from families who are worried about how the change might affect their children.

Indianapolis Public Schools has not explicitly modified its magnet admission rules this year. But this is the first year of Enroll Indy, a new common enrollment system that is changing the process for families, making admissions rules clearer, and ensuring they are applied consistently.

As cities across the country move to common enrollment, they encounter similar issues, said Betheny Gross, a researcher with the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Parents who knew how to play by the rules of the previous system can feel like they are losing control, she said.

“They can’t walk into the school and really give a convincing case to the principal and get their kid into the school,” she said. “Parents, for all good reasons, are very protective of their children.”

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. Enroll Indy, which will run three lotteries throughout the year, sent parents results from the first application cycle Feb. 15.

The problem facing Indianapolis Public Schools now is complaints from families because eight children who live in the district did not win seats at the schools their siblings attend. When children already have a sibling enrolled at a magnet school, they have a leg up in the admission lottery. But students who are zoned to attend a particular campus also get priority, and they are admitted before siblings.

The Andersons’ daughter did not win a spot at School 27 because although she has siblings at the school, the family does not live in the right zone, Jennifer Anderson said.

Those zones exist because when the district has several schools offering the same program, such as Montessori or the Centers for Inquiry, it divides the map into zones. If families want to attend one of those schools, the district provides transportation only to the campus in their zone, said Patrick Herrel, enrollment director for the district.

Having different enrollment areas for schools offering the same program helps balance the number of children eligible for each school and reduce transportation costs, Herrel said. The rules give priority to families in the zones because the district does not provide busing to families outside the zones.

If families get priority but not transportation, Herrel said, “we are essentially pretending to give access to families when in fact only some of those families will be able to take advantage of it.”

A family’s zone could change during the course of their children’s education, however, if they move or the district redraws the boundaries. The results can seem unfair to families who face the prospect that their children may not be admitted to a school their sibling attends. And at least two members of the school board seemed to agree with their argument.

During a meeting Thursday, board member Kelly Bentley apologized to families in the community for failing to ensure that the sibling preference was given more weight when the board reviewed the admission rules.

“We should never, ever split families up,” she added. “I can’t think of anything more inequitable than splitting families up.”

One way of solving the challenge would be providing transportation to families who are no longer in the same zone as their school. But busing students from across the district could come at a substantial cost.

Because of past board decisions, the district is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars busing students from across the district. Next year, it will also offer busing to some students who live out of the zone for School 60, a decision the board made in the face of parent uproar over the new boundaries.

The steep price tag of busing students to different magnet schools is especially significant for the district now because it is in the midst of appealing to taxpayers for more money. In order to reduce the amount it is seeking, the administration said it would need to curtail plans to expand transportation.

“My recommendation to commissioners is to take some time and give this some thought,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “There are tremendous financial implications should we go that route.”

In the long term, it’s likely that Indianapolis’ largest school district will continue to encounter resistance from families until there are more seats available in the most sought-after schools, said Gross, the common enrollment researcher.

“It comes down to supply,” she said. “When we just don’t have enough seats in the places that kids want to go to, you are going to always end up with these disappointments.”

The aim of Enroll Indy, the new common enrollment system, is to make sure families know what school options exist and how to enroll in them, said founder Caitlin Hannon. If they succeed, they will reach families who were not previously applying to the most popular schools — or were missing the deadline. But as more parents apply for schools that are already filling up, others will have a harder time gaining admission, she said.

“If 1,000 more families know about a popular school and apply, haven’t we been successful, because they are applying for a seat that they didn’t even know they could have or existed?” she said.

back to court

Nashville appeals judge’s order to share student information with state charters

The battle over student contact information will continue between Tennessee’s charter schools and its second largest school district.

Attorneys for Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday appealed Chancellor Bill Young’s order to provide state-run charter schools with the names, phone numbers, and addresses of students.

The appeal came on the same day that Young originally set for Nashville’s district to comply with a new state law requiring sharing such information if charter operators request it. But a recent court extension assured Nashville leaders that they could exhaust the appeals process first.

The disagreement — which also touches on student privacy, school choice, and enrollment — has vexed state officials and lawmakers as they’ve sought to mitigate skirmishes between the state’s growing charter sector and its two largest districts, in Nashville and Memphis. Last month, Gov. Bill Haslam brought all parties to the table to seek a solution outside the courts. The State Department of Education was tasked with developing a way forward, but has not yet submitted a proposal.

While the state has urged local districts to comply with the year-old charter law, Nashville leaders argue it runs afoul of a federal law that gives districts discretion over who gets student contact information. For instance, school systems routinely share such information with companies that sell yearbooks and class rings.

The tussle has implications for the state’s largest school system, Shelby County Schools, in Memphis. Leaders there also have refused to hand over the information to charters in the state’s Achievement School District, which seeks to turn around Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools.

What Memphis parents should know about how schools share student information

Parents are divided on the issue. Some say the information exchange is an invasion of privacy, including when a Nashville charter school sent a barrage of text messages to parents, resulting in a $2.2 million settlement last year. Others say allowing charters to contact prospective students allows them to better explore their options.

Starting young

These 11-year-old Brooklyn students are asking New York City to do something about segregated schools

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Matilda and Eliza Seki, left, and their friends Noa and Benji Weiss, right, collected signatures at a district 15 meeting to discuss middle school integration efforts.

While they learned about the history of segregation, a group of Brooklyn 11-year-olds took a good look around their classrooms and realized their schools weren’t so different from the photos in their textbooks.

So Matilda and Eliza Seki paired up with their friends Noa and Benji Weiss — two sets of twins — and decided to do something about it. They launched a petition on calling on the city to integrate its schools.

“We learned about separate and equal in the civil rights movement, and that it was not equal,” Eliza said, referring to the “separate but equal” legal doctrine once used to justify segregation. “And since there are schools with people of only one race, and it’s all separated, it cannot be equal.”

Matilda and Eliza are in the sixth grade at M.S. 839, and Noa and Benji are fifth-graders at P.S. 10. They already have a bit of experience in activism, having joined the Women’s March in D.C., and helping to lead environmental clubs at their school. They hold sophisticated views for kids their age, and are aware of the hurdles ingrained in addressing school segregation.

Describing how housing patterns can tie into school quality, Benji began his thoughts by saying: “Let’s say you’re from a different culture or race and you don’t have as much money as other people do — because we still live in a racist country — and you’re in an area where the housing is cheaper but you don’t have as good schools.”

Across New York City, adults have debated how to spur integration in the country’s largest school system — and one of the most segregated. According to one recent analysis, the city’s most selective high schools enroll 84 percent white and Asian students, even though those groups make up only 30 percent of the city’s student enrollment.

But student-organized groups have also been at the forefront of a grassroots movement for more diverse schools. The work of budding advocates Matilda, Eliza, Noa and Benji caught the attention of some those groups, and they’ve now joined the ranks of Teens Take Charge and IntegrateNYC as some of the youngest members. The changes they’d like to see go beyond admissions policies, but also include a push for additional resources for underserved schools, hiring more teachers of color and curricula that reflects all students and cultures.

“We decided it was an important issue and we wanted to help fix it,” Noa said.

Matilda added: “Our schools should look like our city.”

Their schools are in District 15, where 81 percent of white students are concentrated in just three of the district’s most selective middle schools, according to an analysis by parents. The city has launched a series of public workshops to craft a new admissions model to integrate middle schools there, but these kids already have their own ideas for how to do that.

Benji, who is heading to middle school next year, said it would be “pretty good” if schools stopped picking students based on criteria such as class grades and attendance. Such “screening” contributes to segregation because of a number of factors — from which elementary schools students attend, to their parents’ ability to navigate the complicated admissions process.  

“It’s… important to learn about different peoples’ backgrounds, and religions, and cultures,” he said. “And also to make sure that all kids, no matter their race, religion or where they live can get the same, good education.”