HISD Trustees Wrestle With Their Magnet Report

In a three-hour session Monday devoted to a review of a just-released report on what should be done about magnet schools in the Houston ISD, trustees discussed changing how kids are picked for magnet schools by next fall (Superintendent Terry Grier wants a lottery across the board), how to restore equity across the district without wrecking what works, how many parents don't trust the present selection system while others think it's fine, and whether there are enough white kids to go around to ever meet federal guidelines on ethnic diversity (and therefore qualify for grant money).

Oh, and how to keep parents and students from panicking while all this is being discussed. And magnet school applications were due last Friday.

The report from Magnet Schools of America recommends closing 55 of the district's 113 magnet programs. Schools that are no longer magnets will lose funding and transportation for students bused in from outside their zoned area.

Trustee Anna Eastman voiced concerns that converting several predominantly Hispanic schools in her district from magnet status to Career Technical Education designation, with an ensuing loss of funding and transportation, "will reap huge benefits for charter and private and parochial schools."

Nothing final was decided at the meeting, moved to the auditorium in anticipation of a large crowd (some people there; not a lot), and with community meetings still to come starting January 25, trustees kept repeating that nothing was set in stone.

Not that certain patterns didn't emerge and viewpoints begin to crystallize:

Race: On page 19 of the 79-page report provided by Magnet Schools of America, the auditors say HISD "should work for a diversity goal that reflects the overall population of the school district it serves" and goes on to say that since 92 percent of the HISD kids are minorities and 8 percent white, that each magnet school should work toward reflecting that breakdown by improving its numbers at the rate of 2 percent a year.

That would mean that a school that is, for example, 100 percent minority would work to attract white kids to eventually meet the 8 percent mark. Conversely, a magnet with too many white kids would turn some away.

Trustee Michael Lunceford objected to this, calling it a quota, saying it was possibly illegal. Doreen Marvin, a consultant with Magnet Schools of America, said that they hoped that if other magnet schools in the district improved and achieved exemplary or recognized status, there would be a natural shift of students to achieve this diversity.

Not everyone was buying that. Trustee Harvin Moore raised the most objections to this, pointing out that while 92-8 is the breakdown for the district, if Houston itself is looked at, the breakdown is closer to 75-25. Wouldn't setting 8 percent as the mark "just reinforce the situation we already have?" he asked. Instead, shouldn't the district be trying to attract the families of white students who have instead opted for parochial and private schools, he asked.

"If you have an ethnic group that's not in the school system, that's a problem. If your goal is to keep it that way, that's a problem," Moore said. He also pointed out how difficult it would be to reach a 92-8 split across the district. "There aren't many Anglos to go around" -- a statement echoed by trustee Larry Marshall.

Marshall was one of several trustees who said they see the chief purpose of magnets as providing good programs, not desegregating the district which, according to the federal courts, has already been done. Marshall did say he welcomes the call for neighborhood schools as called for in the report.

Dr. Robert Brooks, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, emphasized that federal grants -- such as the $12 million over three years that HISD got to fund the start of the Apollo 20 project -- call for a demonstrated move to more ethnic diversity and there is no way around that. Numbers not anecdotes: Trustees Eastman, Moore and Lunceford repeatedly asked for numbers to back up anecdotal claims.

"Instead of anecdotal shockers, we need the data," Eastman said. Items discussed:

If principals are working outside the rules to allow kids into their schools not on the magnet waiting list, show the numbers as part of the report. If the district thinks it's paying too much or too little for a magnet program, why isn't HISD determining what those costs should be by looking at its own programs and those of other districts. How many principals are actually misusing magnet school funds by applying them to things like hiring a school nurse (an oft-told tale by Grier). Are these exceptions or the rule?

The definition of a magnet school: Not just a touchy-feely exercise, but a real bone of contention. The state of Texas is out of money. The best hope for magnet funding is through the feds, but that money comes with some very defined objectives about magnet schools as a means of increasing diversity. It also requires that the entire school be devoted to a themed purpose, which rules out the school-within-a-school approach that exists at several locations.

That definition does not exactly match what HISD has been doing. Newest trustee Juliet K. Stipeche asked Brooks if he'd had enough time to do his report -- a correction sheet was distributed Monday night and the report is being corrected online. He said yes, although the two-week holiday break didn't help them.

"These magnet schools have a rich history," Stipeche said, pointing to Furr High School's magnet program. "I understand your approach, but I think something that has come across today is that HISD and each one of these schools has a culture...and we do not wish to create this homogeneity."

Dividing up the district: Grier said in some other districts he's been in, when they replicated a successful program in another part of the district, they drew a dividing line, restricting kids to each school by where they lived.

Moore immediately objected to this, saying that "if you make each one a monopoly in its own area, I'm not sure it'll make the best school." Grier said he didn't necessarily disagree, but other cash-strapped school districts have had to make compromises to save money.

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