Is It Time to Rethink Partial Magnet Schools?

Black students classroom learningBY MELISSA GEIL

In my Durham school district, we are lucky to have access to two public Elementary Montessori Magnet Schools. Great, right? Unfortunately, the odds are not in my favor when it comes to getting a coveted Montessori pre-k spot. There’s one seat for every six kids who apply. But of course it’s way more complicated than that.

Magnet lotteries are tricky, and not just in Durham, NC. Both magnet schools in my area give priority to siblings, of which there were 24 last year for the pre-k class of 58 students at one magnet. My child’s chance of getting in now? One in ten.

Then there is another wrinkle: both schools have something called a priority zone, which complicates things further.

Priority zones — also called walk zones or catchment zones — mean  that children living in these areas (usually a half-mile zone around the school) will be first in line in the magnet lottery. There were 24 of these children, too, for the pre-k lottery last year. Which means a child in the general lottery for the school had just a one in thirty-two chance of gaining admission.

“But that’s not fair!” I cried after I crunched the numbers.

Would I still think it wasn’t fair if I lived in the priority zone? Probably not.

And therein lies the crux of what has become a statewide debate about partial magnets. Should children be allowed to attend the school right across the street from them, even if it is a magnet?

The original magnet schools were created to foster desegration, according to Dr. Steven Stemler, author of School Mission Statement: Values, Goals, and Identities in American Education. The idea was to design schools that were “magnetic,” that would attract students from outside of individual districts, thereby encouraging desegregation by parental choice instead of busing.

If a magnet school has a priority zone, it is what is called a “partial magnet,” meaning that the students are drawn both from the catchment zone and from a lottery process.  Not all magnet schools have a priority zone. And how priority zones are assigned can be a murky and political business.

Oakhurst Elementary, in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, will reopen in the Fall of 2015 as a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) Magnet School.

Back in September, the Charlotte Observer reported that parents from the affluent neighborhoods of Chantilly and Commonwealth/Morningside (where homes range from $300,000 – $500,000) were petitioning the school board to not only establish Oakhurst as a STEAM magnet, but to make it a partial magnet with a catchment zone that included these two neighborhoods. Some parents threatened to opt out of the school system if they didn’t get their way.

Oakhurst was designated a STEAM Magnet in October. However, Chantilly was left out of the catchment zone. By November, due to a forceful parental lobby, Chantilly was in.  Who was out? All of the other less affluent neighborhoods surrounding the school, who are districted for Billingsville, where 95.5% of students are economically disadvantaged.

The problem with this is that magnet schools are supposed to increase parental choice. For all parents. The affluent parents who made threats about the magnet lottery had choices. They can afford to move. They can afford private school.

Billingsville parents who would love to send their child to a “better school” now have a much smaller chance of being able to do so since over 45% of the new Oakhurst STEAM magnet will be filled by children from the walk zone.

If it sounds like I am totally against partial magnets, I’m not. When they are established for the right reasons, they can do a lot of good. When George Watts Montessori in downtown Durham was established as a magnet school with a catchment zone in 2004, the “walk zone” included no desirable neighborhoods. Today the catchment zone for Watts is prime real estate, with higher than average home prices. In fact, the entire neighborhood has been revitalized.

But now that this has happened, maybe it might be time to rethink its partial magnet status, as revitalization crosses over to gentrification. Matt Sears, who is on the board for the Durham School District, has recently suggested that parents at Watts above a certain income level should pay for the preschool programs at the Montessori magnets, because the neighborhood walk zones are “trending toward more affluent” parents.

Magnet schools in North Carolina are some of the finest in the state, and are some of the most desirable schools for parents who are looking to find the right educational “fit” for their children. Partial magnets, as we have seen, can work to bolster a community, and offer a neighborhood the opportunity to come together. They can also, however, serve as tools for exclusion and economic segregation.

There are no easy answers here.

MelissaMelissa Geil is a freelance writer and English teacher. Although originally from New York, she moved to North Carolina the first time for college (go Tar Heels), and now she is back to stay. She enjoys reading, hiking, and gallivanting around the triangle with her family.




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