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CMS Board Weighs Creating Magnets With A Mix Of Socioeconomic Status

Lisa Worf

The CMS board is trying to figure out ways to diversify magnet schools with a new student assignment plan. But how do you do that when a lottery system often decides who gets in by picking students at random? 

You make the lottery less random. The board appears poised to approve a plan that takes into account students' socioeconomic status.  Proposals to do that are being presented to parents in a series of meetings that began this week.

WFAE's Lisa Worf joins Morning Edition host Marshall Terry now:  

MT: Lisa, how do you make a magnet lottery system less random?

LW: You build in priorities. So, CMS's lottery system is close to random right now, but not completely. For example, siblings of current students are guaranteed spots. The district also reserves 20 percent of magnet seats for students who live near them. The board is considering proposals that reserve a certain percentage of seats based on students' socioeconomic status.   

MT: How would that actually work?

LW: There are lots of ways to do it. What the board's student assignment consultants suggest is to first identify a student's socioeconomic status, using a variety of factors like parent's income and level of education. 

MT: We talked about that last week.

LW: Yes, the district could ask parents to report that information and also use census information to estimate it. Once CMS has that, it could classify students as low, medium, or high socioeconomic status.  For example, a student with low socioeconomic status would have parents that didn't finish high school and whose income puts them at the poverty level. A student with high socioeconomic status would have parents that have some kind of advanced degree and incomes well above the poverty level. 

MT: How would those designations come into play?   

LW: One of the board's goals with student assignment is to break up concentrations of poverty. The proposals the board is looking at try to do that, but in a way that also creates balance between those three groups. So it wouldn't just be about capping the number of poor children within a magnet program. It would be trying to get an equal number of low, medium, and high socioeconomic students within the magnet. 

MT: Trying, be the key word there.  How realistic is getting an equal mix of students of different socioeconomic status?

LW: You can't ensure it, but you can encourage it. Here's one proposal. CMS could say let's reserve 30 percent of each magnet program's seats for students of low socioeconomic status, another 30 percent for students from the mid-range, and 30-percent from the high-range. The last 10 percent could include other priorities like a student's proximity to the school. Now, that sounds easy enough, but most magnets don't look anything like this. They're either mostly low-income students, or mostly not.  And since the lottery right now doesn't take into account income, you can assume there's not a huge demand for, say, families from mid to upper socioeconomic status getting into a mostly low-income magnet.  And there's something of a challenge the other way around too. 

MT: So how do you go about, say, getting kids of higher socioeconomic status to apply to schools they're not applying to right now? 

LW: One way is to have a really strong magnet. Collinswood Language Academy is an example of a magnet school that draws a diverse group of students. Another is to make sure the transportation zone that the magnet falls in is fairly diverse. And then magnets may have to do some targeted recruiting. That holds with those trying to attract more low-income students too. The board's consultants say the goal is to not have more than 70 percent disadvantaged students in a school. That's where they say difficulties like holding on to teachers kicks in, at least in magnets, and not less than 30-percent of disadvantaged students because they won't feel comfortable, say, speaking up.    

MT: Is the board talking about doing away with current lottery priorities like proximity or guaranteeing siblings a spot in a magnet?  

LW: The board hasn't discussed changing those priorities. They have talked about reviewing some entry requirements that might create barriers to some low-income students. And, I should say, all of these ideas are just proposals right now. The board does want to diversify magnets. The question is how to do that.  And that's why they're having community meetings this week and next.  The board plans to come up with a final proposal in October and vote on that in November, in time for the 2017-18 lottery. 

Lisa Worf traded the Midwest for Charlotte in 2006 to take a job at WFAE. She worked with public TV in Detroit and taught English in Austria before making her way to radio. Lisa graduated from University of Chicago with a bachelor’s degree in English.