School Choice in HISD
As odd as it may seem, parents in Houston often do not send their kids to the good public school down the street. Instead, they drive miles away to a different public school in a completely different neighborhood on the other side of town. Why? Something called School Choice. School Choice in HISD is an extremely broad term used to describe the various options families have for their children’s primary and secondary education. Within the Houston Independent School District, these options include attending their zoned school, or attending a magnet school within the district. So, what are magnet schools?
Magnet School Program
According to an HISD Comprehensive Magnet Program Review report that was published in January 2011 by Magnet Schools of America, Inc. (MSA), magnet schools are elementary and secondary theme-based public schools of choice. Magnet schools plan and develop programs using local, state, and federal funds, specifically from the federal Magnet Schools Assistance Program (MSAP). In other words, magnet schools are public schools, funded by local and federal tax dollars, that offer special theme-based academics. The areas of specialty academics offered within the HISD magnet program are Vanguard (gifted and talented), International Baccalaureate (an advanced and rigorous curriculum) Montessori (specialized philosophy and methodology principles) STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) Multi-Language, Fine Arts, College Prep, and Career Academics.
Why do we have magnet schools? The Houston Independent School District has a long history with magnet schools that dates all the way back to the 1970’s. Both locally and nationally, this form of School Choice has been used as an effective tool in the effort for desegregating and reducing minority isolation groups. Long-term studies conducted at magnet school sites boast successes such as improved academic achievement, diverse student enrollments, innovative curriculum, specialized teaching staff, higher attendance and graduation rates and lower drop-out rates.
District’s Vision for The Program
According to the 2011 MSA report, the district’s vision for HISD is one that should “..improve the performance and attraction of all schools. Neighborhood schools should be a family’s first choice, but if a child has a specific interest or talent they should have the opportunity to attend a theme-based magnet school elsewhere in the district.”
The stated goal of the district is that a family should look first to their zoned school. However, the Summary of Recommendations For The Governance of Magnet Schools in that same report states that HISD should “develop an aggressive marketing and recruiting program to increase enrollments of non-zone students in magnet schools.” An aggressive marketing plan to promote magnet schools seems antithetical to the stated goal. Do families look first to their neighborhood school and then seek to attend a school elsewhere in the district only when a child has a specific interest or talent that would draw them to one of the Magnet schools?
Beginning in 2011, with the major overhaul of the magnet program system in HISD, combined with this aggressive marketing and recruitment program, magnet schools have continued to increase in popularity every single year. They have become so popular, in fact, that enrollments in some of the higher performing schools have become bloated, and zoned students are being turned away due to overcrowding. Other popular schools have had to reduce the size and scope of their magnet programs, decreasing the number of magnet students they can accept.
Effects of The Program on the Local School
The question these statistics seems to raise is — if popular magnet schools have become successful to the point of overcrowding, what does this mean for the less popular local schools? Are people choosing a magnet school for reasons other than a specific interest or need for a specialized theme-based curriculum? Are people looking first to their neighborhood school, as HISD stated in their vision for the district, or are they turning, in greater and greater numbers, to the other schools simply because they are higher ranking, more popular, or simply trendy?
Many of the parents I know have either gotten lucky through the magnet system lottery or, if not, have made sacrifices to send their children to private school. So I asked some of them a few questions, surveying their thoughts and opinions about local schools, magnet schools, and why they made the choices they have for their families. These are some of their comments.
It was a grueling process.
If we fixed the problem in the low-performing schools, instead of creating new programs/systems, then we would not need the lottery at all.
The test cut off is too low. Everyone gets 70 percent or higher and then the wait list is so long. We were number 465 on the wait list.
At first I thought the magnet schools were a great thing because we could not send our children to our zoned school. Then after applying and not getting into any magnet program three separate years I got really frustrated. We decided to move to be zoned to a good HISD neighborhood school (non-magnet). I have been really pleased with the school, but have found out our school doesn’t get some of the things other schools get because they don’t get the extra “magnet funding.”
When asked “If all of your neighbors attended your zoned school, would that alter or influence your decision?” One parent admitted,“Yes I might send my child too.” Another wrote, “Possibly, if I took that to be a signal that the school was of good quality. ” And yet another answered, “We would have been more likely to choose our zoned school as our 1st choice if we knew all neighbors were attending.”
A few parents spoke very highly of school choice, magnet programs, and the application process. One parent described the process as “super easy and positive” and added as an overall opinion that they “Love school choice. Can’t afford private school and my kids need more challenges than regular public schools offer.”
After looking at the issue from different angles, as well as collecting thoughts and opinions of actual parents in the area, the question still remains — does the magnet school program do what it originally set out to do in its vision statement? Does it improve performance and attraction of all schools across the district? There may be evidence to support that school choice has been successful at improving the performance and attraction of magnet schools, but possibly at the expense of local zoned schools. And what has all of this done to our communities? Do families know and have bonds with neighbors on their streets and in their communities? Have we sabotaged the less popular schools and weakened community ties by rejecting the local school?
How One Community Has Responded
Some families are choosing to buck the trend, opt-out of the magnet lottery frenzy, avoid the morning commute, and return to the neighborhood school. There is a non-profit organization called Learn Local, which is made up of a group of parents who support, attend, and encourage attendance at their locally zoned Hogg Middle School. Having been considered an underserved, lower achieving school for many years, Hogg did not have a good reputation within HISD. It fell far short of the favor received by the more popular schools, such as Lanier Middle School in Montrose, Pin Oak Middle School in Bellaire, and Pershing Middle School in southwest Houston. However, these families chose to band together and support their neighborhood school. Their idea was that by supporting the local school, the local school would be strengthened, thereby making it more attractive for other families and combating the desire for attendance outside the zone. This, they say, will strengthen the community as a whole. When folks know their neighbors, attend school functions together and their kids walk to school together, the school will be stronger and the neighborhood will be stronger as a result.
Families have joined together through Learn Local, and they are using that avenue and those resources to recruit local families to attend the local school. Their efforts have included yard signs, rallies, personalized school tours, private events, and even fundraisers. These are tactics you would normally expect to see as a part of the recruiting efforts of privately funded education, but all of these efforts are an attempt to convince people to attend the local, free, public school just a few blocks down the street from their house. And it seems to be working.
Learn Local raised over $10,000 to help the band purchase new instruments, and received a grant from the Justin J. Watt Foundation for over $14,000 worth of equipment for Hogg sports programs. They secured a partner relationship with another non-profit called Mission Squash, an urban youth development program, which provided the financial backing to build the first ever squash courts on any public school campus in the nation. This gives students at Hogg Middle School the rare opportunity to learn a sport mostly played at top-tier and Ivy League colleges, and possibly someday vie for athletic scholarships at those schools.
What is The Right Choice?
So what is the answer? Should parents look first to their local school, even if it is lower ranking or considered underserved, utilizing community support, just as the parents from Learn Local have done, to strengthen and build their zoned school? Or should they take advantage of the opportunity to be a part of a higher ranking magnet school somewhere else in the district that is more popular? That is the choice afforded to families in HISD, and the decision, it seems, is still up to them. The choice they make, however, will have a real and lasting effect on their community.
With some local schools and communities genuinely weakened by the effects of School Choice, do the benefits of the program outweigh the harm it inflicts? In many instances, according to the parents I surveyed, it does not, raising the question of whether the system should be reevaluated. Until that happens, however, it is up to each individual citizen and parent to do what they can for our schools and communities. Join the neighborhood organization. Support the local school, if you can, and become an active volunteer in the Parent Teacher Association. A school is only as strong as its PTA, whether private, magnet or local. Parents, you still have the most influence and make the biggest difference in the lives of our children.