Strengthening Education or Weakening Communities?
As odd as it may seem, parents in Houston often do not send their kids to the good school down the street. Instead they drive miles away to a different public school in a completely different neighborhood on the other side of town. Why? Something called School Choice. What is School Choice, you might ask. It is an extremely broad term used to describe the various options families have for their children’s primary and secondary education. Within the Houston Independent School District these options include attending their local zoned school or attending a magnet school within the district. Which leads to the question — what are magnet schools?
According to an HISD Comprehensive Magnet Program Review report that was published in January of 2011 by Magnet Schools of America, Inc. (MSA), magnet schools are elementary and secondary theme-based public schools of choice. Magnet schools plan and develop programs using local, state, and federal funds, specifically from the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP). In other words, magnet schools are public schools, funded by local and federal tax dollars, that offer special theme-based academics. The areas of specialty academics offered within the HISD magnet program are: Vanguard (gifted and talented), International Baccalaureate (an advanced and rigorous curriculum) Montessori (specialized philosophy and methodology principals) STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) Multi-Language, Fine Arts, College Prep and Career Academics.
Why do we have magnet schools? The Houston Independent School District has a long history with magnet schools that dates all the way back to the 1970’s. Both locally and nationally, this form of School Choice has been used as an effective tool in the effort for desegregating and reducing minority isolation groups. Long-term studies conducted at magnet school sites boast successes such as improved academic achievement, diverse student enrollments, innovative curriculum, specialized teaching staff, higher attendance and graduation rates and lower drop-out rates.
So how does the magnet program work? If a family decides that their zoned school is not appropriate for their child for any reason, that family may choose to apply to a magnet school anywhere within their residential district. The application process is spelled out in detail on the School Choice Options link on the HISD website, but I will sum it as succinctly as I can. This gets a bit complicated, but stick with me here.
A parent can either print out the application form from the HISD website or pick one up in person at any school in the district. The completed application packet, including all required records, may then be submitted to as many Magnet Schools as they wish to apply, with no maximum limit, as long as the deadlines are met. Depending on the particular program, there may also be interviews, testing or auditions that are also necessary, but parents will be notified of any such additional pre-qualifications after initial submission. At the close of the application season, when all deadline dates have passed, students who have met the requirements for application are put into a lottery system, and randomly selected for acceptance into the program. Each magnet school conducts their own individual lottery, so applicants must make separate application with every single school for which they wish to be considered. Preferential treatment is given to younger siblings of students already in the program, but otherwise HISD maintains that the lottery is a random selection.
On a specified date in March all parents are notified by each individual program whether or not they have been accepted or if they have been placed on the waiting list and what number they are on that list. Parents have about two weeks to accept or decline any invitations for attendance. If a student has been invited into more than one program, only one school can be accepted. Refusal to answer an invitation by the acceptance date will result in an automatic assumption of denial and that spot will be subsequently offered to the next student on the waiting list. This very competitive and slightly complicated protocol sounds like we are discussing college the college application process, but this is actually for Kindergarten. So why the added complexity in something that used to be so simple? What are the district’s goals for these magnet programs, and what are the supposed advantages?
According to the 2011 MSA report the district’s vision for HISD is one that should improve the performance and attraction of all schools. Neighborhood schools should be a family’s first choice (emphasis mine), but if a child has a specific interest or talent they should have opportunity to attend a theme-based magnet school elsewhere in the district. Notice that the stated goal of the district is that a family should look first to their zoned school. However, the Summary of Recommendations For The Governance of Magnet Schools in that same report states that HISD should develop an aggressive marketing and recruiting program to increase enrollments of non-zone students in magnet schools. An aggressive marketing plan to promote
magnet schools seems antithetical to the stated goal. Do families look first to their neighborhood school and then seek to attend a school elsewhere in the district only when a child has a specific interest or talent that would draw them to one of the Magnet schools?
Beginning in 2011 with the major overhaul of the magnet program system in HISD, combined with this aggressive marketing and recruitment program, magnet schools have continued to increase in popularity every single year. They have become so popular, in fact, that enrollment in some of the higher performing schools has become bloated and zoned students are being turned away due to overcrowding. Other popular schools have had to reduce the size and scope of their magnet programs, decreasing the number of magnet students they can accept. As of December 2014 three magnet programs within HISD were eliminated completely and 15 more were placed on probation for violations of quality and size.
The question these statistics seems to raise is — if popular magnet schools have become successful to the point of overcrowding, what does this mean for the less popular local schools? Are people choosing a magnet school for reasons other than a specific interest or need for a specialized theme-based curriculum? Are people looking first to their neighborhood school, as HISD stated in their vision for the district, or are they turning, in greater and greater numbers, to the other schools simply because they are more popular or higher ranking?
Many of the parents I know either send their kids to private school or have gotten lucky through the magnet system lottery. So I asked some of them a few questions, surveying their thoughts and opinions about local schools, magnet schools and what choices they have personally made for their families. I gave them an opportunity to complete an anonymous questionnaire and asked them to share the survey with other parents they know. I was able to get responses from 19 different individuals, all who have school-aged children, and live within the Houston ISD school boundaries. Of those surveyed, 15 do not attend their zoned school. Over half have applied to schools through magnet program at least once. Three of them were accepted into at least one school for which they applied. Eleven were not accepted into any program, even though most claimed to have applied to multiple schools. One hundred percent of those surveyed, all 19 responders, claim they did not turn down a single offer of acceptance. In other words, every parent I surveyed who had applied through the magnet program and were subsequently selected into a magnet school all accepted that invitation. Only two people responded that their child attends the locally zoned school.
I also gave parents the ability to anonymously discuss some of their personal experiences with the magnet application and acceptance process, as well as give their overall opinion of the program. These are some of those answers.
When asked if their experience with the application and acceptance process was positive or negative, one parent answered, “It was a grueling process.”
When asked about their overall thoughts on HISD School Choice/Magnet Programs, parents had much to say.
“If we fixed the problem in the low performing schools, instead of creating new programs/systems, then we would not need the lottery at all.”
“The test cut off is too low. Everyone gets 70 percent or higher and then the wait list is so long. We were number 465 on the waitlist.”
“At first I thought the magnet schools were a great thing because we could not send our children to our zoned school. Then after applying and not getting into any magnet program three separate years I got really frustrated. We decided to move to be zoned to a good HISD neighborhood school (non-magnet). I have been really pleased with the school, but have found out our school doesn’t get some of the things other schools get because they don’t get the extra “magnet funding.”
“I’d like my kids to go to Roberts, Wilson, River Oaks, Poe or West U- none of which are anywhere near where we live. Otherwise, I’ll suck it up and pay for private.”
The most telling of all may be the way parents answered this last question. When asked “If all of your neighbors attended your zoned school, would that alter or influence your decision?” One parent admitted,“Yes I might send my child too.” Another wrote, “Possibly, if I took that to be a signal that the school was of good quality. ” And yet another answered, “We would have been more likely to choose our zoned school as our 1st choice if we knew all neighbors were attending.”
A few parents spoke very highly of school choice, magnet programs and the application process. One parent described the process as “super easy and positive” and added as an overall opinion that they “Love school choice. Can’t afford private school and my kids need more challenges than regular public schools offer.”
After looking at the issue from different angles, as well as collecting thoughts and opinions of actual parents in the area, the question still remains — does the magnet school program do what it originally set out to do in its vision statement? Does it improve performance and attraction of all schools? There may be evidence to support that school choice has been successful at improving the performance and attraction of magnet schools, but possibly at the expense of local zoned schools. And what has all of this done to our communities? Do families know and have bonds with neighbors on their streets and in their communities? Have we sabotaged the less popular schools and weakened community ties by rejecting the local school?
Some families think so; and they are choosing to buck the trend, opt-out of the magnet lottery frenzy, avoid the morning commute, and return to the neighborhood school. There is a non-profit organization called Learn Local, which is made up of a group of parents who support, attend, and encourage attendance at their locally zoned Hogg Middle School. Having been considered an underserved, lower achieving school for many years, Hogg did not have a good reputation within HISD. It fell far short of the favor received by the more popular schools such as Lanier Middle School in Montrose, Pin Oak Middle School in Bellaire and Pershing Middle School in southwest Houston. However, these families chose to band together and support their neighborhood school. Their idea was that by supporting the local school, the local school would be strengthened, thereby making it more attractive for other families and combating the desire for attendance outside the zone. This, they say, will strengthen the community as a whole. When folks know their neighbors, attend school functions together and their kids walk to school together, the school will be stronger and the neighborhood will be stronger as a result. As they state on their website:
“Our mission is to establish a bridge for our children between our successful Heights neighborhood elementary schools and Hogg Middle School, enabling progression within our strong, unique community.”
The Houston Chronicle featured one Learn Local family in an article entitled “Hogg parents form non-profit, work to improve local school,” which ran in December of 2014. The article profiled the Defilippos, a Heights family who have chosen to send their children to Hogg Middle School even though previously attending private schools and higher ranking public schools through the magnet program. The Defilippos, along with other families like them, have joined together through Learn Local, and are using that avenue and those resources to recruit local families to attend the local school. Their efforts have included yard signs, rallies, personalized school tours, private events and even fundraisers. These are tactics you would normally expect to see as a part of the recruiting efforts of privately funded education, but all of these efforts are an attempt to convince people to attend the local, free, public school just a few blocks down the street from their house. And it seems to be working.
Learn Local recently raised over $10,000 to help the Hogg Middle School band purchase new instruments and they also received a grant from the JJ Watt foundation for over $14,000 worth of sports equipment. They have recently secured a partner relationship with another non-profit called Mission Squash, an urban youth development program, which provided the financial backing to build the first ever squash courts on any public school campus in the nation. This will give students at Hogg Middle School the very unique opportunity to learn a sport played only at top tier and Ivy League colleges, and possibly someday vie for athletic scholarships at those schools. I also learned from their website that membership in the Parent Teacher Organization has increased by over 300% in the past few years due to the incredible support of parents and students from Learn Local.
So what is the answer? Should parents look first to their local school, even if it is lower ranking or considered underserved, utilizing community support to strengthen and build their zoned school? Or should they take advantage of the very real opportunity to be a part of a higher ranking, more popular, or specialized magnet school somewhere else in the district? That is the choice afforded to families in HISD; and the decision, it seems, is still up to them. The choice they make, however, will have a real and lasting effect on their community.