Chicago, San Francisco Consider Admissions Changes for Magnets

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Two of the nation's largest districts are considering changes to their desegregation programs that would allow more neighborhood children to attend magnet schools that for years have been geared to citywide admissions.

In Chicago, administrators early this month proposed setting aside 30 percent of placements in the city's 43 magnet schools for neighborhood children. The proposal by the district's chief executive officer, Paul G. Vallas, has set off a debate about which students deserve access to the magnet schools--which are widely considered to be the district's best schools.

Chicago officials have already agreed to phase in their proposed neighborhood set-aside by making it 15 percent next year, with the possibility of increasing it to 30 percent the year after.

Meanwhile, San Francisco Superintendent Waldemar Rojas has proposed setting aside 40 percent of kindergarten places for neighborhood children in the district's 15 alternative elementary schools, which are similar to magnet schools in that they draw students from throughout the city.

In both cities, the proposals are being cheered by parents who live near the highly desirable schools but have been unable to enroll their children in them.

"How can you explain to your children that they cannot go to a magnet school right across the street?" Natividad Hernandez, a Chicago parent and member of the local school council at Orozco Community Academy, said at a recent public hearing.

But other parents and observers view the proposed changes as a sign of a reduced commitment to integration.

"To have a magnet program that brings children together from across the city is a wonderful educational experience," said Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a Chicago parents' group. "And it will be damaged if we have a large neighborhood set-aside."

Busing Curtailed

Other cities have grappled with the issue of opening magnet programs to neighborhood children, but Chicago and San Francisco are among the largest to do so. The proposals come at a time when more parents are questioning traditional desegregation remedies such as busing and assigned schools.

In addition to the neighborhood-set-aside proposal, officials of the 424,000-student Chicago district want to restrict busing to magnet schools to only those students who live within six miles of a school.

"This change is being made because excessively long bus rides are not in the best interests of the children, particularly when equally viable options are available closer to home," Mr. Vallas said in an Oct. 10 letter to parents.

The restriction could cut transportation costs by as much as $11 million a year, which would free up money to establish new magnet programs, Chicago officials say.

Critics contend the neighborhood set-aside in Chicago is designed to free up magnet spaces for children from affluent families who live on the city's predominantly white North Side.

Designs for Change, a Chicago watchdog group that questions the set-aside proposal, released an analysis showing that many magnet schools in low-income areas already draw 30 percent or more of their enrollments from children in the neighborhood. But most magnets in upper-middle-class, mostly white neighborhoods take less than 30 percent of their students from nearby homes.

"We are concerned that low-income students of all racial and ethnic groups will be adversely affected by this proposed change," Joan Jeter Slay, the associate director of Designs for Change, said in a letter to the city's desegregation monitoring commission. Some 34,700 students in the district attend magnet schools.

But district officials countered that the proposed neighborhood set-aside was being welcomed in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Officials expect the district's board of trustees to vote on the proposal by late next month.

San Francisco Hearings

In San Francisco, officials plan hearings this week and early next month to explain their proposal to open alternative schools to more neighborhood children. Mr. Rojas said in an Oct. 9 letter to school board members that the change will "build a neighborhood residential base for each elementary alternative school."

"There is no intention to dilute our desegregation efforts," said Gail Kaufman, a spokeswoman for the 64,000-student district. Under the district's desegregation consent decree, no school is supposed to have a student enrollment drawn more than 40 percent from any racial or ethnic group.

Carol Kocivar, the president of the San Francisco PTA, said the organization has not taken a stand on the proposal because it is hearing from parents on both sides.

"People who have enrolled their children in alternative schools under the current system are expressing concern that they won't be able to get them in as easily," she said. "The point on the other side is that there are a lot of children who can't go to school close to home."

Web Only

Web Resources
  • Read Title V, Part A of the Education Department's "Improving America's Schools Act of 1994,'' which outlines the purpose of the Magnet Schools Assistance program.
  • "Focus Schools: A Genre To Consider" provides a wealth of information on the history and practice of theme or "focus schools," many of which are magnet schools. From the Urban Education Web at Teachers College, Columbia University.
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