Magnet Schools in HISD -- The Passion, The Powder Keg

The word "lottery" is not just anathema to Southern Baptists.

Toss it into a room filled with ardent supporters of the magnet program in the Houston Independent School District and you get a two-hour discussion about good programs (okay, toss the bad ones), high test scores, engaged students and the right of parents to have a say in their children's education.

But lottery, as Superintendent Terry Grier has recommended in an approach supported by Magnet Schools of America (recently hired to "audit" the HISD's brand of magnets) might mean an end to all that, at least if it's instituted at the middle school and high school level, these parents are wary and/or afraid. As one person phrased it: "Clearly, it takes away choice."

Members of the HISD Parents Visionaries Group, a vari-colored coalition of PTO heads and school representatives from across the district, met today to unveil their apprehensions and try to ramp up plans for more public input into the rehaul of the magnet program that is now being studied.

It would be wrong to characterize the meeting as being in total opposition to the magnet school overhaul plans. For one thing, nothing is set in stone yet. For another, everyone there was more than ready to jettison the failures. "We have the opportunity to get rid of some really lousy magnets," one parent said.

Houston works and has continued to work with a hybrid model of magnets, said Mary Nesbitt, who was last year's HISD parent volunteer of the year. She'd like to see the district told that its mission should be that "Highly successful magnet programs are replicated all over the district."

"A magnet should be an avenue of excellence for high performing schools, not just a tool to turn around a low performing school."

Some of their questions and concerns:

-- If the Houston ISD really wants parent input into the plan it's putting together to overhaul its magnet program, why is the first draft of that plan due Friday, October 15 -- the week before the last three public meetings are scheduled on the issue?

One strategy they discussed was for the parents in the Larry Marshall, Carol Mims Galloway and Mike Lunceford districts whose meetings are scheduled October 26 through October 28, to come to some of the district meetings the week before on Monday, October 11 through Thursday October 14. (Lunceford actually has a meeting both weeks, magnets being a very hot topic in the Bellaire area.)

-- Why aren't there any Saturday meetings planned and who is going to be able to take off from work and child responsibilities to come to a meeting during a day in the work week?

They'll ask HISD to schedule some Saturday meetings -- asking all parents to come during the workday or at the end of a work night is too tough, they said.

--If there is a lottery does it have to be centralized or can parents still apply at each school?

-- Is there no room for a merit-based approach in a lottery system?

-- Will students now attending a magnet be grandfathered in and retain their spots?

As past superintendents have learned, the magnet parents lobby in HISD is a powerful force. These are parents invested in the program, whose kids benefit from it and who want to see it continue -- generally in the same way it has in the past. They haven't decamped to the suburbs.

They believe the process is being rushed and ask why any changeover can't take place over two years instead of shoehorning it into one. They are afraid parents will not have enough time to adjust to the new requirements that they see coming.

Parent Jay Aiyer, who studied Magnet Schools of America's previous statements about what makes a magnet, says that group does not consider a school-within-a-school a magnet (HISD has a few of these) or a school that has a huge neighborhood component a magnet. (Under those rules, West University Elementary, a math-science magnet, wouldn't qualify since of its 1,200 students, only 10 are from outside the neighborhood, a parent there said. )

Also, to be a magnet, the "theme" of the magnet must be incorporated into the very fiber and being of the school. Carnegie Vanguard is called a magnet, but it's really just a place for really really smart, high-performing kids to take tough classes.

The problem isn't just one of semantics. If the schools aren't "magnets," then they lose magnet money. Some schools -- such as Condit Elementary -- aren't magnets but are doing good jobs, Aiyer said, adding he'd like to see additional funding wherever a school is working well. At the same time, another parent said, some schools not working well at all -- but called magnets -- are getting substantial additional funding. Other schools have hung on to funding even after cutting the programs the extra money was set aside for -- such as afterschool programs.

Magnets were originally created to promote diversity and the idea that they should be "elite academic institutions" came later, he said.

Dottie Bonner, the retired former Manager of Magnet Programs for HISD, argued that it shouldn't be a requirement that the magnet program involve an entire school. She pointed to Sterling High School, well known for its small and impressive airplane flight school which enrolls about 200 kids out of the school. "Do we want every child at Sterling High School, to put him in a plane? No!" she said to general laughter.

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