Court action raises question about magnet school admissions

The lifting of a 40-year-old desegregation order has raised the question of whether changes will have to be made to the admissions process for Richmond County’s magnet schools.

The order permitted those schools to consider race when selecting students, and at least two of Richmond County’s three magnet schools did. Without a desegregation order, the U.S. Department of Education requires race-neutral policies and allows schools to use a student’s race only in addition to other criteria.

Because students for the county’s three magnet schools have already been selected for the 2013-14 year, Superintendent Frank Rober­son said he plans to re-examine policies later this year to prepare for the 2014-15 class.

Because the district’s demographics have shifted to majority-black students, Roberson said he does not foresee any problems.

“I think the natural selection or application process is going to almost guarantee diversity because of the nature of the demographics in the population in our community,” he said. “There’s really not anything to do but let the application process happen naturally, and you’re going to get the balance you desire.”

Federal guidelines released in 2011 allow schools to consider race as a “plus factor” among other admissions criteria, but it cannot be the defining feature.

For example, in competitive schools such as magnet schools, a district could draw from a lottery system made up only of students who meet basic criteria, such as grades. A district could also give preference to qualified students based on their socioeconomic status, their parents’ level of education or their neighborhood to achieve diversity, according to the guidelines.

“We live in a segregated society still, and if you’re not paying attention to diversity it’s not going to just magically appear on its own.” said Erica Frankenberg, an assistant professor in the department of education policy studies at Pennsylvania State University. “Magnet schools that say they have a goal of diversity are more diverse than those that don’t say they have that goal.”

In Richmond County, both C.T. Walker Traditional and John S. Davidson Fine Arts magnet schools maintain almost an even split of black and white students.

All students who meet C.T. Walker’s academic and conduct requirements are placed into a lottery when there are more applications than available seats. Principal Renee Kelly said students are placed in separate lotteries based on race so the school can draw a balanced amount of black, white and other qualified students.

“It’s important because it exposes kids to diversity they encounter in the real world,” Kelly said. “In the 21st century, that’s even more important.”

By their nature, magnet schools are more diverse than traditional public or charter schools because they draw from wide attendance zones and admit students based on a central theme or interest. They were established in the 1960s as a remedy to segregation by attracting students of all backgrounds to high-achieving schools of an individualized focus.

“All students, no matter what their ZIP code or race, have gifts and talents,” said Mag­net Schools of America executive director Scott Thomas. “When you design a school around a specific interest, you’re going to get a wider array of diverse students.”

A.R. Johnson Health Science and Engi­neering Magnet School Principal Lamonica Lewis said her school receives more black applicants than white, and her enrollment reflects that. A.R. Johnson has certain academic and standardized testing requirements for entrance, and students are ranked based on those criteria and required recommendations.

It has resulted in a student body that is nearly 70 percent black and 23 percent white, which is level with the makeup of the district.

“We really had no reason to look at race,” Lewis said. “We simply rank the students based on the information that they give us. … It is my hope that children of any background that have an interest in health, science and engineering apply, and that’s how it’s been for years.”

Thomas said nationally, many magnet schools are using other factors to achieve racial diversity by proxy – such as socioeconomic status, their native language or neighborhood – which helps add more cultural variation to the environment.

Thomas said diversity is proven to boost achievement among students, help in the development of empathy, improve language acquisition, increase the chances of going to college and develop overall character.

“A lot of school districts are happily moving away from race because socioeconomic diversity is still extremely important to schools and school districts,” Thomas said. “At the end of the day, what they have found works best is letting students choose and having compelling, high-quality programs will attract anyone and everyone.”

Judge lifts Richmond County school desegregation order
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