The IPS Magnet School Conundrum

Indianapolis Public Schools has many problems: low enrollment, shrinking budgets, failing students. Add another: me.

February 2018Add a comment

Three years ago, my wife and I moved downtown for the typical reasons: to enjoy the amenities of urban living; to be closer to interesting arts, dining, and nightlife opportunities; and to live among people who shared what we imagined were our socially progressive values.

We also had our eye on a downtown elementary school for our two young sons: Center for Inquiry 2, a highly regarded Indianapolis Public Schools magnet that offers the prestigious International Baccalaureate program. Several of our friends already sent their kids there, and they assured us it was a fantastic school.

Enrollment at CFI (and all IPS magnets) is lottery-based and governed by rules that give some families an edge over others. For example, hopefuls who live in a “priority zone” around a magnet school get an advantage, as do those who have a child already attending the school of their choice.

We first played the magnet lottery when we enrolled our oldest son in pre-kindergarten—a process that’s playing out in thousands of Marion County homes this month. Since CFI 2 doesn’t have a pre-K program, we made CFI 27—a duplicate of CFI 2 in the nearby Kennedy-King neighborhood—our first choice on the lottery application. But we didn’t get in. Instead, we got our second choice: George Washington Carver Montessori School 87.

School 87 came recommended to us by a friend who works in IPS whose judgment we trusted, so we hadn’t investigated the school much ourselves. When we learned our son would be going there, we started researching. What we learned caught us off guard.

The school is located in a profoundly impoverished neighborhood just north of Fall Creek Parkway, two blocks east of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Street. Eighty-five percent of School 87 students are nonwhite, and nearly 80 percent qualify for free or reduced lunch.

The more we learned about School 87, the less comfortable we were with the idea of sending our son there. And though we hated to admit it, we knew our discomfort was rooted in prejudice.

“Prejudice” is a harsh word, but it’s the right one: We had never visited School 87, and we had no specific reason to believe that our son would be unlikely to get a good education there. We simply saw a school with lots of poor kids in a poor neighborhood, and our parental instinct—impulsive, judgmental, illogical—kicked in.

The parental instinct isn’t a bad thing in and of itself; it has kept the species going for 200,000 years. But there’s a tribalism built into it that pushes parents to keep their children among their own kind. And that’s why 64 years after Brown v. the Board of Education, segregation in American schools is almost shockingly pervasive. It persists in socially progressive hotbeds like New York City and Los Angeles, and it certainly endures here in Indianapolis.

The initial response by middle-class whites to government-mandated school desegregation was to get the hell out of the city. “White flight” helped build suburban communities like Fishers, Brownsburg, Carmel, and Zionsville. And it left urban Indianapolis a shell of itself.

Now, though, our city is in the midst of a renaissance. Millennials and late-blooming Gen X–ers like myself find the trappings of suburban living—gated cul-de-sac subdivisions, strip malls, big-box stores, and office parks—depressingly dull. We prize interesting architecture, walkable streets, bike lanes, public transportation, and, not least of all, diversity. Indeed, there are few bigger champions of diversity than white, college-educated city-dwellers.

Except when it comes to schools. In that regard, we’re far more like suburbanites than we’d care to admit.

 

I’ll be honest: I hadn’t thought about all of this much until I encountered a story in The Indianapolis Star in July 2016 titled, “Why this IPS School is Mostly White and Wealthy.”

The headline made me flinch. I thought it would be about CFI 2, where my son was about to attend kindergarten. Instead, its primary target was its sister school, CFI 84, which opened in Meridian-Kessler in 2006.

In a district where 80 percent of the students are minorities, CFI 84 is 83 percent white. As a magnet school, CFI 84 is supposed to promote diversity. But IPS seems to have used CFI 84 to do the opposite. Priority zones for IPS magnets didn’t exist before 2006, but the district created one specifically for CFI 84 so families in the mostly white and wealthy Meridian-Kessler would have an enrollment advantage.

Priority zones for IPS’s other magnet schools soon followed. Over the next 10 years, these zones created virtual velvet ropes around a handful of the city’s most desirable magnets. “Based on the preferential tiers, the most popular magnet schools were never getting beyond the preferences,” says former IPS school board member Gayle Cosby, a vocal critic of inequitable school policies. They became, essentially, quasi-private schools.

Shamed by the Star exposé, IPS snapped into action. Just two months after the story was published, the school board voted 5-0 to reduce the size of its magnet priority zones to half a mile. It also added two additional rounds to the magnet lottery application process to accommodate minority and low-income families, who often apply later in the year.

Some IPS board members were in favor of eliminating the priority zones entirely. But others were wary of driving away affluent families who have the resources to pay for private school—or simply move to another school district. That’s what Ted Feeney did.

Feeney’s family is racially mixed—he and his wife are white; their adopted daughter is black. The Feeneys had lived in the priority zone of the popular Butler Laboratory magnet school since 2008. But the new priority zones took effect just a few months before it was time for them to enroll their daughter in kindergarten. Consequently, they were shut out of Butler Lab, as well as their second and third school choices—CFI 87 and CFI 70 (the latter of which recently opened, unsurprisingly, in the Meridian-Kessler area). The day after the Feeneys learned the news, they put their house up for sale.

As the father of an African-American daughter, Feeney understood the rule change. But it bothered him that it happened so fast. And he had trouble accepting that his African-American daughter was turned down because of a measure intended to increase diversity. “It didn’t make sense,” he says. “The district is saying they want more diversity. But then she can’t go?”

Even without the Feeneys, the number of minority students who won kindergarten seats in IPS’s most popular magnet schools doubled in 2017. And district leaders are hoping a new enrollment system will drive those numbers up even more. OneMatch, which debuted last November, is a “unified enrollment” platform that lets parents browse all available school options—magnet, neighborhood, and charter—on a single website. Parents can apply for up to 10 schools, and OneMatch returns the single best possible match based on an algorithm created by a Nobel-winning academic. If parents don’t get their first choice on the first round of the lottery, they can apply again in the second and third rounds.

Caitlin Hannon, executive director of Enroll Indy, which operates OneMatch, says the platform will bring more equity to the IPS enrollment process. In addition to better informing parents of their school choice options, Hannon says it will also keep well-off families from wielding social or political influence to get into a magnet school of their choice. This is because OneMatch eliminates school wait lists from the enrollment process altogether.

Wait lists, per Hannon, are nearly impossible to manage equitably. By getting rid of them—and by making the entire enrollment process algorithm-driven—OneMatch makes it harder for connected parents to work the system. In cities where unified enrollment systems are already in place, school board members and city councillors routinely miss out on their first school choice. “That’s how you know it works,” Hannon says.

 

IPS’s efforts to reduce inequity are a step in the right direction, but policy changes can only do so much. Solving the school segregation problem requires parents to make choices that can often feel at odds with their kids’ best interests.

I admit it: When my son didn’t get into CFI 27 for pre-K, I vainly scanned my mental Rolodex in search of someone who might be able to pull some strings. Finally, I bit the bullet and sent my kid to School 87.

As I drove up Indianapolis Avenue on the first day of school, the boarded-up windows, overgrown lawns, and trash-lined curbs triggered alarms in my mind. “TURN AROUND,” my parental instinct said. But there was nowhere else to go, so I dropped off my son and hoped for the best.

All of my preconceived notions about School 87 proved almost comically wrong. I saw a school full of mostly poor, minority kids in a crumbling neighborhood, and worried that our son might not be challenged or (rather absurdly) might be unhappy there. On the contrary, he loved it. He made friends easily; he was challenged daily. He thrived in the school’s project-based Montessori curriculum.

By the end of the year, he had learned to read and was more than prepared for kindergarten.
Still, when it came time to enroll him in kindergarten, we stuck to our original plan and applied to—and got into—CFI 2. The school lives up to its stellar reputation in every way. But in writing this story, I have begun to question whether it was the right choice after all.

Studies have proven that classroom diversity is good for kids regardless of their socioeconomic status or ethnicity. A 2016 Columbia University study reported that “exposure to students who are different from themselves and the novel ideas and challenges that such exposure brings leads to improved cognitive skills, including critical thinking and problem solving.”

My son’s kindergarten class at CFI 2 was the film-negative version of his class at School 87—almost entirely white. Not only had I deprived him of valuable experiences with kids different from him, but in my own small way I was also helping perpetuate the racial segregation that has dogged our city, well, forever.

I used to think that raising my kids in the city instead of the suburbs would steel them against racism. But sharing a ZIP code with people of color doesn’t mean much if you’re not sharing resources. If you’re not sharing classroom space. If you’re not sharing culture.

The ugly truth is, even some liberal white parents won’t send their kids to a school that’s “too” brown or black. This is why Kathryn Dart is so exceptional.

Dart is an artist and stay-at-home mom. She and her husband, Joel, both grew up in small, mostly white, Southern Indiana towns. Yet both believe that living in a large, racially diverse city comes with a certain set of social responsibilities. It’s an attitude that sets them apart from most people they know—even their good friends. “Their kids are all either in private schools or magnets,” Dart says.

Dart briefly considered sending her daughter to a magnet school for kindergarten last year. Like so many other downtown-area parents, she visited Theodore Potter School 74, then CFI 2, and fell in love. “[CFI 2 is] such a great school that I want to go there,” she says.

But, she adds, “We were concerned about the diversity problem the magnets are having right now.” So instead, the Darts opted to send their daughter to Thomas Gregg Neighborhood School— their local IPS school. It’s rated “F” by the state, and, unsurprisingly, is comprised of mostly poor black and Hispanic kids. Those would be deal-breakers for most middle-class white families. But the Darts wanted their daughter to be able to walk to school and to learn and play with kids who live in her own neighborhood.

“Our main motivation is being socially conscious and making mindful choices,” Dart says. “Trying to examine the impact of the choices we make and realizing our privilege.”

Dart is self-aware enough to know this kind of talk can come off as preachy or self-righteous; she was wary of even speaking to me on the record for that reason. “It’s hard to talk about without sounding judgmental. I would never tell another parent where they should send their child to school.”

But she would urge parents to ask themselves a question. “At the very least, consider why you won’t consider [your neighborhood school] at all. People just assume, ‘It’s IPS, it’s going to suck if it’s not a magnet.’ Maybe ask yourself, ‘Why would I assume that all of the kids who go to this school are not good enough for my child?’”

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