School & District Management

Tulsa to Change Admissions To Magnet Schools

By Catherine Gewertz — November 26, 2003 3 min read
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The elimination of racial quotas from magnet school admissions in Tulsa, Okla., has kicked off a debate about how best to preserve racial integration in those schools.

Some residents are demanding a fuller exploration of how to assure good, racially diverse schools systemwide. Responding to their anger, two state lawmakers sent letters last week to Tulsa school board members requesting an investigation into whether Superintendent David E. Sawyer was improperly limiting public input on how admissions at Booker T. Washington High School and Carver Middle School should be redesigned.

In the wake of the letters, sent by Rep. Judy Eason McIntyre and Sen. Maxine Horner, Mr. Sawyer’s public-information staff issued a statement clarifying that he was inviting “ideas, opinions, statements of support or disagreement, recommendations for revisions, and/or suggestions” on magnet school admissions.

But some citizens, including large segments of the black community, would like district leaders to consider restructuring the magnet schools as neighborhood schools. They are concerned that focusing only on magnet-school admissions will shortchange examination of the larger picture.

“We need further time to study how best to achieve diversity within the entire system, not just at magnet schools,” said James O. Goodwin, a lawyer who worked on Tulsa’s desegregation efforts more than 30 years ago. “Six hours of public debate isn’t enough.”

Three two-hour meetings to hear public comment on how to restructure magnet school admissions were scheduled for last week, and the school board was expected to consider the matter on Dec. 15. District officials contend the timeline is necessary to ensure a plan is in place for the next cycle of student applications.

‘Pressing Issue’

Mr. Sawyer said he believes that the focus on magnet school admissions is proper because it is “the pressing issue.”

“I don’t think this is the time or place” for a broader debate about equity and diversity systemwide, he said in an interview last week. “What we want to focus on right now is how to retain the level and kind of diversity we currently have at the magnet schools.”

Tulsa’s debate about magnet school admissions began last month, when Mr. Sawyer announced that he would drop the requirement that each magnet school’s enrollment be 45 percent black, 45 percent white, and 10 percent “other.” Those quotas date back to the district’s 1973 desegregation plan, which attempted to use magnet schools to attract white students to predominantly black neighborhoods.

But in the wake of a pair of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in June that held that a race- conscious postsecondary admissions policy must employ an individualized analysis of each applicant, district lawyers advised Mr. Sawyer that the “45- 45-10 system” would not withstand a legal challenge.

On Nov. 10, Mr. Sawyer released four alternatives.

Three of the choices would divide the 43,000- student district into sections, and weight enrollment from the various sections to achieve racial balance. One of the proposals, for instance, would enroll 60 percent of high school magnet students from the parts of town that have the greatest concentration of black families, and 40 percent from the portions with more white families.

The fourth proposal would give preferential admission to the top 20 percent of each 8th grade class, based on students’ cumulative grade point averages. That option, Mr. Sawyer said, would likely result in less diversity than would the geography-based proposals.

Applicants to the magnet high school still would have to meet the existing criteria of having a 2.5 GPA and being in the top 35th percentile on a reading and math test.

Other districts are re-examining their use of racial quotas in magnet school admissions as well.

Dallas, which was released from court-ordered desegregation in June, is considering a plan that would fill 10 percent of magnet school seats with students whose academic records make them most “distinguished.”

From a remaining pool of academically qualified students, the other 90 percent of seats would be filled by lottery.

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