Clarifying the school choice process

Supreme Court ruling prompts changes

A new plan to determine which students are admitted to high-demand high school programs was reworked in July, only about a month after it was presented to the Minneapolis School Board.

The changes came as district leaders rushed to have a clear high school choice process in place for this fall. In just a few months, the district’s 8th graders begin applying to the small learning communities they will join when they enter high school in fall 2008.

One of the changes eliminated race as a factor in school assignment. A Supreme Court ruling in late June strictly limited the role race can play in school
assignments.

Considering the new high school choice plan was meant, in part, to address racial disparities in high school programs, the ruling could have been a major setback. But Associate Superintendent Craig Vana said there were still ways to encourage integrated programs.

“The Supreme Court ruling still leaves flexibility for us,” Vana said. “You can’t use race as the primary piece [in selecting students], but you can use some of the other characteristics [of students].”

Other changes to the high school choice plan put greater emphasis on keeping educational “pathways” intact. Those pathways are programs such as International Baccalaureate that have a presence in both middle schools and high schools.

Those changes may only amplify the concerns of those parents who argued the new choice plan would fuel anxiety about getting their children onto a pathway in elementary school or middle school, years before they apply to a particular high school.

Others were concerned that the plan might put up additional barriers for students hoping to attend a program outside of their school attendance areas.

Vana said some of those concerns may be addressed in the future. But the district needed some kind of choice plan in place by June, or it risked losing millions in grant dollars.

Demographics debate

Previously, the district used so-called “selection criteria” to choose which students could enter a high school small learning community, or SLC, when demand for that SLC exceeded the number of available seats. SLCs are the focused educational programs that group students of similar interests in each high school.

But those selection criteria — which ranked students based on grade-point average, attendance records and other factors — were seen as favoring white students in the placement process.

The new choice plan did away with selection criteria and gave students from underrepresented demographic groups priority for admission to SLCs.

Still, some questioned that approach to integrating programs, including Stephen Kotvis, a parent who sat on a district advisory group called the High School Design Team. Kotvis said the new plan was untested.

An important question remained: Would more students of color apply to majority white SLCs in the first place, even if they had a better chance of getting in?

The Supreme Court ruling on the use of race in school assignment could have simply ended the debate in June. But the high school choice plan still will take account of demographics in placing students.

Vana said the use of factors such as socioeconomic status had been effective in integrating other school districts’ programs. The high school choice plan will also look at gender and English proficiency, among other demographic factors.

Side effects

Whether or not the high school choice plan balances the student population in SLCs, its effect on student placement will be much broader.

Some middle school students who hoped to enter one of the district’s most popular SLCs, such as International Baccalaureate at Southwest High School or the open program at South High School, could face new hurdles.

Students already on an educational pathway now have first priority for entering these programs. Next come students who live in the school’s attendance area, followed by students with older siblings in the high school to which they are applying.

That was good news for Mary Lewis’ daughter, Anna Wilson, a 7th-grader at Anwatin Middle School.

Lewis said her daughter intended to apply to International Baccalaureate at Southwest, a program seen by many in the district as the best at preparing students for college. Wilson would get first priority, as she was in Anwatin’s International Baccalaureate program and on an educational pathway. She also had two older siblings at Southwest.

But Bambi Patrick’s daughter, Molly, an 8th-grader at Anthony Middle School, may not be so lucky. Patrick said her daughter also wanted to enroll in Southwest’s International Baccaulareate program, but was not already on a pathway. Neither did she have an older sibling at Southwest.

Although many Anthony students live in the Southwest attendance area, the Patricks live in the Washburn High School attendance area. As Patrick saw it, her daughter had no place on the new choice plan’s list of priorities.

“If we are not given the choices that we want for her, we will look elsewhere for her,” she said.

Other families, trying to predict the needs of their children years down the road, may end up jockeying for seats in the educational pathways that start in elementary and middle school, she said.

Vana said the district could address that problem later by adjusting school attendance areas or expanding popular SLCs.

“We know that we’re going to have to work with parents on this,” he said.

Reach Dylan Thomas at [email protected] or 436-4391.