Pitching a Tent for Magnet Schools

In Cincinnati, parents have the choice about where their children attend school. In the public school system, children can default to attending their neighborhood schools, or apply for enrollment in one of the magnet schools. Many of these magnet schools are designed around a specific educational pedagogy–Montessori or Paideia, for example–or a certain focus of education–foreign language or fine arts, for example.

The competitive nature of enrollment in these magnet schools is understandable. First of all, Cincinnati magnet schools are free for city residents. And because they are sometimes much higher ranked in academics and a bit more culturally refined than neighborhood schools, these schools are a great option for parents who would consider private or parochial schools if it were not for the price.

There is a catch.
Some of these schools are so desirable that they attract too many families. To keep enrollment manageable, CPS has developed a system that requires some pretty serious dedication from the family.

A recent story in the Cincinnati Enquirer covers the phenomenon of the CPS magnet school enrollment process:

“The magnet schools, which generally have high academic ratings and focus on specialties like foreign language or the arts, accept students on a first-come first-served basis. At most schools there is no problem getting in. But at Fairview and a handful of others, lines form days in advance.”

I have mixed feelings about this “first-come first-served” policy.

On the positive side, CPS can rest assured that only the most committed families will enroll their children in these highly competitive schools. This obviously contributes to the high academic achievement of such schools, as well as the shared commitment to success. This policy also gives parents the opportunity to provide the best education possible for their children, regardless of financial restraints.

On the negative side, it’s not an equitable policy. “First-come first-served” policies like this take a lot for granted. First, that all parents have the possibility of taking 3-5 days out of their lives to camp out on the school’s front yard. Second, it presupposes that a child’s worthiness in not inherent, but is dependent upon their parents’ willingness to go to such lengths.

Another major inequality built into the policy is the way it effects the neighborhood schools. In this system, the children privileged enough to have parents willing to sacrifice for their children are the only ones offered an option outside of their own neighborhoods. Where does that leave the rest?

So, if this system is not an equitable system, what other option do we have?

I do believe that committed parents should be rewarded for their commitment. And I also understand that any parent who wants the best for their child would (hopefully) do whatever necessary to make it happen–i.e. make certain they can be in line when they need to be to secure that spot in their desired school. So, completely tossing out the policy doesn’t make sense.

I guess one simple question is this: Why doesn’t CPS reserve a certain percentage of the open spots for those who are not able to make it to the front of the line? It seems like this would make everyone happy. The parents at the front of the line would get theirs spots. And the folks at the back of the line would be entered into a lottery for the remaining slots.

Is this already happening?
Am I missing something?

And maybe there is another question to ask:
What is the point of magnet schools?

According to Wikipedia’s article on Magnet Schools:

“Districts started embracing the magnet school models in the hope that their geographically open admissions would end racial segregation in “good” schools, and decrease de facto segregation of schools in poorer areas. To encourage the voluntary desegregation, districts started developing magnet schools to draw students to specialized schools all across their districts. Each magnet school would have a specialized curriculum that would draw students based on their interests. One of the goals of magnet schools is to eliminate, reduce, and prevent minority group isolation while providing the students with a stronger knowledge of academic subjects and vocational skills. Magnet schools still continue to be models for school improvement plans and provide students with opportunities to succeed in a diverse learning environment.”

Can someone with more personal experience in the Cincinnati magnet schools tell me if this is working? My fear is that instead of desegregating the more under-served and impoverished neighborhood schools, magnet schools actually pull the most opportunistic families out of all of the neighborhood schools and leave even mid-income neighborhood schools culturally impoverished. The children who end up in the magnet schools benefit; everyone else suffers.

I don’t know that I can offer any better solution to the problems in our public schools. I can understand a parent’s desire to provide the best opportunity for their children, so I’m not willing to fault those who stand line for days to secure those coveted kindergarten seats.

My last question:
What would happen if, instead of hand-picking the best regional opportunities for our children, we invested our time and energy in our own neighborhood and community institutions, whether they be educational, cultural, or religious? How would the most disadvantaged children in our city benefit from this local investment by the parents of the most privileged ?

Perhaps what I’m suggesting is not the economic concept of the “redistribution of wealth” but, rather, the redistribution of educational opportunity.

As for our family, my husband and I have some crazy schemes for the education of our children. And I’m not ready to discuss them here. For now, I’m simply going to hope for good weather for those camped out on Clifton Ave, and pray for the welfare of the children whose parents won’t show up, but who deserve something better than their neighborhoods can provide.

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One thought on “Pitching a Tent for Magnet Schools

  1. Interesting questions raised here. As I most recently returned from a four day camping excursion waiting in line at one of these magnet schools, I'd just offer my perspective. We specifically moved our family into this neighborhood to integrate ourselves into the social fabric. We walk the streets, shop here, and we truly wanted our daughter to go the neighborhood school.I'm an officer in our local community council so I have the opportunity to access insider information about our public school. What I have both heard and observed first hand is disheartening. The administration is most concerned with self-preservation which means total commitment to preparation of standardized test. Unfortunately, I was optimistic as our school was in academic emergency, hoping it would be taken over and have administrative change. But the testing was just enough better this year, meaning that nothing will change. I am not willing to entrust my child to this school. Reluctantly, we sought other options. The magnet schools were a perfect choice. I will say that I was very impressed at the diversity of this magnet school; we value this, and wouldn't have moved back to the city to raise children without it. But I would rather invest in our neighborhood school. We were just unwilling to treat our child as a means to accomplish our sociological desires.

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