the lottery

Indianapolis Public Schools considers move to diversify top schools

PHOTO: Alan Petersime
Students work on spelling words at IPS School 27, a Center for Inquiry magnet school.

Indianapolis Public Schools is considering changes that could make some of its most sought-after schools more diverse.

In the the wake of a story exposing how IPS policies exacerbate racial segregation at some magnet schools, the district says it is reviewing magnet school admissions.

The story on magnet schools was part of a series on school segregation from Chalkbeat, the Indianapolis Star and WFYI that has sparked a conversation around the district about whether all students have fair access to the city’s best schools.

Now, IPS Superintendent Lewis Ferebee says the district is considering shrinking the priority zones that surround some of the city’s magnet schools.

Since some of the most coveted schools are in predominantly white or gentrifying neighborhoods, the district’s longstanding policy of giving admissions preference to people who live near the schools is likely one reason why they enroll a higher percentage of white students than most other district schools. Shrinking the priority zones would make room for more students from the rest of the city, possibly boosting school diversity.

“We are not in the business of preventing students who live right across the street from a choice program from having access to that school because we want students to have access to schools in their neighborhood,” Ferebee said. “But some of the proximity zones are much larger than we think they may need to be.”

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READ MORE: Find the entire series here.

At some high-demand magnet programs in Indianapolis — which typically have waitlists — the district admits students who live in the vicinity of the school before opening the lottery to kids from other areas. But because some priority areas span as far as a mile, popular schools fill many of their seats with neighborhood students.

The starkest example is School 84, which is nestled in the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood, one of the most affluent areas of the city. Eighty-three percent of students there are white and only 5 percent of students come from families with incomes low enough to qualify for meal assistance.

Giving priority to students from the neighborhood is likely a driving reason why more students at the school are white and wealthy than a typical IPS school. Districtwide, only 21 percent of students are white and 71 percent qualify for meal assistance.

The details of the potential policy shift are still unsettled, but the proposed change will be discussed at community meetings that the district plans to hold in the coming months.

It’s an issue that IPS leaders have discussed in the past, Ferebee said. But it didn’t get enough support from the board for the administration to pursue a change.

Ferebee said that based on the most recent year of data from the admission lottery, the district is concerned about the demographics of some high-demand schools.

“I think some of the schools may have lost some of their diversity,” he said.

Increasing the number of black and Hispanic kids at the schools that serve many of the district’s more well-off families would be good for underserved students because research shows the benefits of attending schools with middle-class peers, said Indiana University law professor Kevin Brown.

“Trying to… increase your percentage of minorities in those kind of schools is going to be real positive,” Brown said.

But Brown said that in order for the schools to become more diverse, the district will also need to recruit black and Hispanic students to apply to those schools.

Brown also cautioned that white families may move to the suburbs or enroll their children in private schools to avoid predominantly black and Hispanic schools.

“What the school system obviously will not want to do is to end up admitting so many black and Latino (students) that the white students pull out,” he said.

Indianapolis schools divided

Admissions changes are diversifying Indianapolis Public Schools most popular magnets. Now, the district may go further.

PHOTO: Provided by Indianapolis Public Schools
The magnet priority admission boundaries adopted by Indianapolis Public Schools in 2016.

New rules designed to make Indianapolis Public Schools’ most sought after schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color appear to be working. But with admissions still skewed, the administration is proposing going even further.

Across IPS, just one in five students are white and nearly 70 percent of students are poor enough to qualify for meal assistance. But at three of the district’s most sought after magnet schools, white students fill most of the seats and the vast majority of students come from middle class or affluent families.

At a board meeting last month, district staff highlighted School 60 (the Butler University lab school), School 84 and School 2 (both Center for Inquiry schools) as three schools where seats fill up fast and enrollment doesn’t reflect the demographics of the district.

In a bid to make those schools more accessible for low-income families and children of color, the board changed the admissions rules for magnets last fall. They shrank the boundaries that give priority to families who live near the schools, which is important because the three most popular schools drew from areas with more white, affluent families. And they changed the timeline for magnet admission to allow families to apply later.

“Magnet schools were born out of the civil rights movement and were intended to help school districts to re-integrate,” former-board member Gayle Cosby said at the time. “We want to make sure that magnet schools are not actually serving a different purpose in our district.”

The changes appear to have opened Schools 2, 84 and 60 to more students of color, according to data from the first admission cycle under the new rules. Next year, 32 percent of kindergarteners are expected to be children of color. That’s more than double last year, when just 14 percent of kindergarteners were not white.

But those demographics don’t come close to matching the district, where 72 percent of kindergarteners are children of color.

IPS director of enrollment and options Patrick Herrel said the goal should be for admissions at the most popular magnet schools to reflect district demographics.

“All kids, regardless of background, (should) have an equal chance of accessing some of our highest quality schools,” he said. “We moved in the right direction, but we are absolutely not there yet.”

The changes also aim to make the schools more economically diverse, but the data on income diversity among kindergarteners won’t be available until students complete enrollment and income verification paperwork, according to an IPS official.

District staff say IPS could do more. Last month, they presented the board with a plan to reserve more seats for students who apply late in the cycle. IPS data shows that students who apply later in the spring are more likely to come from low-income families and to be children of color.  

The move would double down on a change made last year, when the district switched from a single admissions lottery in January to three lotteries. Last year, 70 percent of seats were available in the January lottery, but 30 percent were held for lotteries in March and April. The new proposal calls for going further by reserving half the seats at magnet schools for the March and April lotteries.

When the board voted on the change to admissions rules last fall, there was strong momentum behind the move to change magnet lottery rules, following a Chalkbeat and IndyStar series on segregation in schools that found the district’s most popular programs primarily served privileged students. But there was also resistance from some parents, many of whom came from neighborhoods that lost their edge in gaining entry to popular schools.

It’s unclear whether board members will be willing to risk more backlash from parents who have the means to travel to other districts or pay private school tuition. The board did not vote on the latest lottery proposal, and it received mixed feedback.

Board member Diane Arnold said she supports holding more seats for later lotteries when more children of color apply.

“I like the fact that we are looking at playing with those percentages … connecting that to equity and trying to get more children engaged in those programs,” she said.

But board member Kelly Bentley was more skeptical. Equity is important, she said, but if parents don’t know whether their children are admitted to their top choice school until late April, they might choose another school.

“That’s a … loss of a student and a loss of revenue to the district,” she said. “I think we need to be very careful on making any changes.”

Indianapolis schools divided

School districts across the country are breaking apart, but Indianapolis is already divided

PHOTO: EdBuild
The report on school district secession was released Wednesday.

Communities across the U.S. are breaking away from larger urban districts, exacerbating segregation by race and class and draining money from school systems with the highest needs, according to a new report.

“This isn’t a story of one or two communities,” said Rebecca Sibilia, CEO of Edbuild, which released the report Wednesday. “This is about a broken system of laws that fail to protect the most vulnerable students.”

So far, the phenomenon of school district “secession” has largely bypassed Indianapolis, in part because the city’s schools are already separate — 10 districts surround Indianapolis Public Schools. That’s by design: State lawmakers wanted to avoid local backlash, so they chose not to merge school districts when Indianapolis and Marion County unified in 1970 under “Unigov.”

The national report from EdBuild, a nonprofit research group focusing on education funding and inequality, highlights districts across the country that have had some of the most dramatic secessions. A particularly egregious example is when six suburban towns within Shelby County split off from the Memphis school system. In Tennessee, municipalities with at least 1,500 students can secede if a majority of local voters approve.

Unlike Tennessee and other states where secession is common, Indiana law is less friendly to breakaway districts. If a community wants to split from a larger district, they must have the backing of a county committee, the Indiana State Board of Education and 55 percent of local voters, the report said. During that process, state and county officials have to consider how that move would affect school finances.

Since 2000, just one attempt at district secession has occurred within the state. The East Madison school district tried to secede from Anderson Community Schools in 2012, but the move was defeated.

There have not been any efforts for school districts to secede in Marion County, where they are already highly fragmented. In fact, the decision not to unify schools when the city and county merged has had far reaching effects.

As Chalkbeat reported in a story last year, the courts would later call that decision discriminatory, and it was a primary argument a federal judge cited in 1971 when he ordered desegregation busing of IPS students across school district lines into the townships. The program began in 1981 and ended last June.

The judge who ordered the busing, Samuel Dillin, stated bluntly that a merged city that left 11 separate school districts was racially motivated at a time when a majority of the region’s African-American and minority students lived in the city center while the surrounding school districts primarily enrolled white students.

“Unigov was not a perfect consolidation,” then-Mayor Richard Lugar told Chalkbeat. He went on to be one of Indiana’s most legendary political leaders as a six-term U.S. senator. “A good number of people really wanted to keep at least their particular school segregated.”

You can find EdBuild’s interactive graphic here and the entire report here.