in Houston, Texas
Parents fear magnet revamp will be used to fill seats in Houston ISD's 'small schools'
Wednesday, Mar 02, 2011, 03:27PM CST
By Lynn Walsh
Map inset

The Houston school district says it won't use a proposed centralized lottery admission process for magnet programs as a way to force kids into schools with too few students  -- but some parents say they're still worried that will happen.

As the review of the Houston Independent School District's 113 magnet programs continues, parent leaders from across the district gathered Tuesday to hear how one North Carolina school district uses a lottery system.

Houston school officials say a centralized lottery would provide an equal opportunity for all students. They say a lottery would be much more fair than the system the district uses now, in which students apply to individual schools -- some of which, data show, accept all their applicants, while some others are more selective. 

But the potential revamp of HISD's magnet program is coming at a time when the school system is also considering the future of dozens of schools it says have too few students to be run economically. The debate over "right-sizing" could lead to some of the "small schools" -- some of which also have magnet programs -- being closed or consolidated.

To show the overlap between the two issues -- magnet programs and small schools -- Texas Watchdog has created a map that shows all the HISD schools in the two discussions. Red balloons show the magnet programs that outside consultants have recommended for closure, while green balloons show which magnets are recommended to be left open. The map also uses red squares to show the 66 small schools that could be closed or consolidated, and green squares show which schools receive extra funding for being "small" but which are not on HISD's list of 66. (Story continues below map -- click here to jump down and continue reading, or click here to see the map larger.)


View full map

Less than 15 small schools have magnet programs that have been recommended for closure. More than 40 magnet programs at non-small schools have been recommended to be done away with. 

The magnet programs in the Wake County, N.C., schools have always used a centralized lottery process, consultant Ramey Beavers told the parent group Tuesday, and re-populating under-enrolled schools is one of the main reasons the North Carolina district started magnet programs. 

Rhonda Jones and some other HISD parents at the meeting Tuesday are afraid HISD is trying to do the same thing.

If Jones' son doesn't get picked in the lottery, "we are forcing this gifted child to re-populate this under-populated building," Jones said. "This is what the lottery and magnets were used for in Wake County, and if that is what we are doing here, then we need to say that. If we are not, then we do not need to use a centralized lottery. I do not live by a reputable school, and this would directly affect me and my gifted child."

HISD says that is not the case.

"We want to provide every child with equal access to great schools," said Lupita Hinojosa, the head of the district's magnet programs. "We can do that through a centralized lottery that is shaped by what we want and value in HISD."

One of the major concerns the school district heard in a recent outside review of its magnet programs "was that not all students have equal access to the best schools in this district," Hinojosa said, and a lottery would provide equal access.

But some parents said it would be unfair for the decision of whether their child gets into a magnet program to be left up to a drawing done by a computer and not by a person. 

"The issue of cheating and gaming the system is a management problem that isn't solved through a lottery system," said HISD parent Mary Nesbit, parent of a Kolter Elementary student. "It seems to me that cheating and gaming the system is the issue, and I think (Superintendent Terry) Grier can address that."

A centralized lottery "will reduce my gifted child's choice to a computer," Jones said. Her son attends Oak Forest Elementary in northwest Houston. "That is not acceptable for my child."

HISD brought in Ramey and another consultant with experience with Wake County's magnet programs, Caroline Masengill, for the Tuesday discussion. 

Masengill is also a former president of and consultant for the nonprofit Magnet Schools of America, the same group that conducted HISD's magnet review. The school system has paid her more than $13,000 since February 2010, according to the district’s online check register. 

HISD Chief of Staff Michele Pola said Masengill's consulting work was related to the federal magnet grant the district won this school year. Pola said she was not aware that Masengill was a consultant for MSA, and said her work for the group has nothing to do with being hired as a consultant for the meeting.

"Caroline has been across the country working with magnets," Pola said. "They were available, and she has extensive experience."

HISD trustees are expected to see a more detailed proposal of the magnet recommendations during a Thursday night board meeting. Trustees will also hear updates on the 2011-12 district budget and the school closure policy. 


Contact Lynn Walsh at 713-228-2850 or or Twitter at @LWalsh.

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A Wake COunty parent
Thursday, 03/03/2011 - 10:31AM

A centralized lottery system allows many factors to be considered. For instance, my 'node' had a less than 10% chance of being considered for magnet schools because they needed our 'numbers' in the local school. IE, if we left, the F&R (free and reduced lunch) % might go up. The lottery systems also considers crowding - if your base school is under-enrolled, you're not getting out. It is an unequal lottery here in Wake County for the best magnet schools. It has nothing to do with what's best for your student - we are eligible to apply, and that's it.

Jennifer Mansfield
Thursday, 03/03/2011 - 02:38PM

I live in Wake County, NC and have a lot of experience with our magnet system and its 'lottery'. Wake County's lottery is not a true lottery resulting in all students having an equal chance of getting in. Until this year, it was based largely on our system's goal of the socio-economic balancing of schools. This meant that if you lived in a low income neighborhood and/or were assigned to a higher poverty school, your chances of getting into a magnet were very small. Although this discriminatory practice has ended, our lottery is based on how crowded your assigned, base school is. If your school is underenrolled, you have a reduced chance of getting in. Only 10% of our magnet seats are available in a truly random lottery.

If your system wants to move to a true lottery for all seats, then you can do that without Beavers and Massengill. Their experience in Wake County was with a weighted lottery that had little to do with student welfare and everything to do with manipulating student populations. Also under our system, non-magnet schools are prohibited from offering certain things lest they compete with the magnets. No band or orchestra in elem school, certain foreign languages are only allowed to be taught at magnet schools, foreign language instruction in non-magnet elem schools is limited to a once a week special.

Parents would be wise to question why the school system is considering this model. It sounds like your system has its own issues, but using the Wake County model is not the way to go. It is inherently unfair and it doesn't matter how academically gifted or interested in the program your child is --if you are not applying from the favored schools, you have little chance to get in.

I have a blog with information about our school system's magnet lottery. It may give you some ideas of what to watch out for if HISD does indeed implement a lottery system.

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