UPDATE: Jason Spencer of the HISD press office contacted us to point out that Superintendent Grier has never said he was surprised at the findings of Magnet Schools of America about HISD's magnet program.
In April 2009, Magnet Schools of America reviewed the San Diego school district's magnet schools and reached many of the same conclusions as it has in Houston ISD, calling for racial diversity as a chief goal of magnet schools and more central oversight of any such program.
The conclusions for Houston have drawn a lot of fire among parents of HISD magnet school students. Superintendent Terry Grier's administration has increasingly distanced itself from the report, saying that it does not represent the position of the administration or the district's trustees.
But if Grier, who left San Diego in September 2009 before coming to Houston, knew MSA's philosophies, why
is he expressing any surprise at their findings didn't he already know what they would say, the HISD Parent Visionaries group wants to know.
The San Diego report recommends setting up the makeup of a school by ZIP codes -- there would be limits on allowing children in some neighborhoods or "clusters" to enter certain magnet programs.
"Entrance to the San Diego magnets appears anything but random. The similarities in philosophy raise many critical questions for Houston taxpayers," said Mary Nesbitt, president of the Parent Visionaries group.
As critics have previously complained, MSA's report recommends removing magnet status -- and magnet money -- from exemplary schools such as Carnegie Vanguard High School, saying it doesn't have a magnet theme.
"The Houston MSA recommendations fail to expand proven, quality programs or replicate magnet excellence in any meaningful way," Nesbitt said.
A review of the San Diego report also notes that MSA was against replicating successful programs there. "Magnet programs should have a distinct theme and should not be replicated at other schools in the district which will allow them to maintain their attractiveness and strength," MSA said in San Diego.
It also argues against schools with the same themes operating in close proximity to each other. Parent Visionaries notes that in Houston, MSA calls for Lovett Elementary to change its fine arts theme even though it is in-demand and academically successful. Nearby Parker Elementary also has a fine arts theme.
"The MSA Lovett recommendation would eliminate 700 high quality Fine Arts magnet seats at the elementary level and is an example of how Houston MSA recommendations would diminish HISD's competitiveness with suburban districts," Nesbitt said.
Also, she said, if they were to eliminate Bellaire, Westside and Lamar, it result in the loss of 3,377 "high quality" magnet seats at the high school level, she said.
Grier has said repeatedly that he is not out to take over or completely centralize the HISD system, but there has to be an end to the inequities in the magnet program. The San Diego report calls for "eliminating the 'principal dependent' condition," which would, of course, appear to run counter to HISD's decentralized, campus-management system.
Parent Visionaries also looked at the 14 San Diego schools "that were applauded for progress in improving diversity" and found "they were specifically recognized for reducing the percentage of the white student population," Nesbitt said.
MSA's Houston report sets a goal of 92 percent minority, 8 percent white at all magnet schools. Trustees have objected to this, saying while it reflects HISD's current ethnic breakdown, the breakdown in Houston itself is closer to 75-25 and shouldn't that be what the district wants to achieve? Besides which, trustee Michael Lunceford has asked, aren't racial quotas illegal?
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Hair Balls tried to reach Grier for more comment, but he was tied up in budget meetings. We will update if he has anything to add.
Have a look for yourself at the Magnet School of America's San Diego report, below.