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HISD Dumps 20 Magnet School Programs, Saying They Just Didn't Measure Up

Houston ISD, the district that years ago was a leader in the country in using magnet schools to desegregate its campuses, announced Thursday it will close 20 of its 115 magnet programs -- saying that not enough kids from outside their zoned neighborhoods are going to these particular schools.

Here's the roll call: Burbank, Elrod, Law, Pleasantville, Wesley, and West University elementary schools; Attucks, Deady, Dowling, Holland, Jackson, Key, and Patrick Henry middle schools; and Jones, Lee, Madison, Sharpstown, Westbury, Wheatley and Worthing high schools.

This doesn't mean the schools will be shut down; they'll just lose what most people consider their most prestigious programs at the end of the 2013-14 school year. There won't be any school board vote of approval needed either -- thanks to earlier changes in the magnet school policy all of this falls under the purview of Superintendent Terry Grier's administration.

They'll lose the funding that enabled them to operate their magnet program as well as the transportation funding that goes with this, something the district says will amount to $4 million that "will not be freed up for other academic purposes."

Magnet programs at another 18 schools were placed on probationary status. These are: Crespo, Garden Villas, Helms, MacGregor, Pugh, Ross, and Wainwright elementary schools; Hogg and Long middle schools; and Kashmere, Scarborough, Sterling, and Washington high schools. If they don't meet the new standards - non-zoned magnet students must represent at least 20 percent of the total number of students at a school - their programs will be toast at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

At the same time, the press release touted the fact that HISD, thanks to a $12 million federal grant, is adding six magnets with concentrations in science, technology, engineering, and math instruction.

It also appears that significant cuts may be in store for some magnet programs in HISD including the highly respected one at T.H. Rogers K-8 school. According to information we received, preliminary HISD figures show Roger's magnet budget of $492,360 for 2013-14 would be cut to $196,064 in 2014-15.

Since Grier arrived at HISD in 2009 he, like other superintendents before him, has attempted to tinker with the magnet program. It's generally acknowledged that while some programs are stellar, others were magnet programs in name only, offering neither quality programming nor attracting much of anyone to their campuses.

In January 2011, HISD received the results of a special review of its magnet program from the independent group Magnet Schools of America which recommended closing 55 of the district's then 113 magnet programs. Schools that were no longer magnets would lose funding and transportation for students bused in from outside their zoned area.

Parent groups erupted with protests, and even school board members weren't comfortable with all the MSA recommendations, including the requirement that every school should not exceed the district average of being an 8 percent white student body and that students who exceeded that should be turned away.

But now it appears some of its key elements are being employed in making the determination of whether a magnet program is making the grade. According to Thursday's HISD press release:

"These 20 magnet school programs enroll a combined 758 students from outside their attendance zones.

"Non-zoned magnet students represent just 4 percent of the total enrollment at the 20 schools, far short of the 20-percent target established in HISD policy. Middle schools and high schools can also meet the enrollment target if they enroll at least 100 non-zoned magnet students per grade level. The 20 schools are not expected to meet the minimum enrollment requirement by the October 25 deadline."

Part of the district's plan to transform the magnet program calls for funding to be based on a per student allocation designed to make everything fair and equitable. And the policy also allows that a particular program could apply for additional funds if it could demonstrate added need.

But the most vehement critics see this as window dressing. There are three main questions to be asked in a review of HISD magnets: Have we determined what makes a magnet program work at some schools and not at others? How much does it cost in Houston to operate a competent magnet program? And how do we replicate that success at other schools?

The one-size-fits-all funding policy - while on its surface admirably balanced - ignores the fact that one program may cost more than another to operate. And, as such, is taking away funds from programs that need more to put them in programs that may do perfectly well with less.

And part of the plan is to have a magnet coordinator at all the schools at $52,800 a year which if your budget has already been cut, just trims it that bit more.

There was a committee of school personnel and parents that met, but how much affect, if any, these people had in determining the plans unveiled today, is well, a good question that we don't have the answer for right now.

Another unanswered question is whether by shutting down some magnet programs and significantly reducing the financing at others, HISD can in effect force kids back into neighborhood schools that they've already rejected or whether those kids and their parents will depart for the few successful charters or the suburbs.


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