Pittsburgh Magnet Schools Losing Racial Balance

Diversity initiatives are failing in Pittsburgh-area schools

View Comments (
)
|
Email
|
Print

    NEWSLETTERS

    While magnet schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools historically ensured racial balance, city magnet schools now operate as schools of choice without any guarantees or deliberate measures racially balancing them.

    While magnet schools in Pittsburgh Public Schools historically ensured racial balance, city magnet schools now operate as schools of choice without any guarantees or deliberate measures racially balancing them.

    Some magnets have become less racially balanced than they were two decades ago. Some essentially are feeder schools where as many as 95 percent of students are black.

    Most of the city's magnet programs started in the late 1970s and 1980s as a way to desegregate schools by offering attractive, specialized programs and allotting spaces by race.

    Beginning in 2010-11, the district discontinued considering race in magnet admissions as a result of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on race-based admissions in Seattle and Jefferson, Ky., in 2007.

    In addition, population has dropped, and school closings -- many in 2006 and later -- have led to reassignments, including assigning students in feeder patterns based on street address to schools that had admitted students only through the magnet process."Without diversity goals, without oversight with the goals and then without funding to help boost the magnetism of the thematic offering, it can be hard to maintain that desegregation," said Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, assistant professor of educational leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University and a research associate at the UCLA Civil Rights Project.

    City school board President Sharene Shealey said the figures point to the importance of the district's equity plan set in motion last fall.

    "I think it moves us to a place where we get high-quality education in all of our schools versus in pockets of schools," she said. "Hopefully, that would affect the way parents choose so that we have a better distribution."

    The district offers 28 magnet programs, some schoolwide and some partial programs in a school.

    Open via lottery to students from throughout the city, magnets offer themed studies, including the arts, classical studies, college prep, international studies, computer science, JROTC, science and technology, teaching and traditional studies.

    Pittsburgh's magnet system was developed as part of a desegregation case that led to a consent decree with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. The district was one of 26 school districts statewide that the commission ordered to desegregate in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

    While the commission initially monitored Pittsburgh's progress, the Legislature in 1996 limited the commission's authority over school districts.

    When much of the district's desegregation plan went into effect in the early 1980s, enrollment was divided into two categories: black and other.

    In 1979, the year before much of the desegregation plan started, 48 percent of city district students were black. Whites and other races were combined to form "other."

    Today, the district is 55 percent black, 33 percent white and 12 percent other races.

    Until 2010-11, admission to most magnets was by race _divided into black and other. In the early years, parents waited in line at their school of choice, but in more recent years, for schools where there are too many applicants, a lottery has been done by computer.

    The current lottery does not consider race but gives extra weight for various factors, such as eligibility for free or reduced-price lunch and living within the geographic region where the school is located. Siblings have preference.

    School board member Jean Fink, who first joined the board in 1976, said, the city has "changed a lot over the years," including closings of both district and parochial schools and opening of charter schools.

    Two decades ago, Pittsburgh had 78 schools, not counting special schools. Today, also not counting special and online schools, there are 50 brick-and-mortar schools.

    "A lot of people still want their kids in their own neighborhood," Fink said. "It doesn't matter what color they are, they prefer to have their kids close to home."

    HERE COMES 'NEIGHBORHOOD PREFERENCE'

    Shealey said she would like to see, particularly in the magnet high schools, a diversity in ZIP codes.

    However, the neighborhood preference, driven at least in part by busing costs, weights the lotteries toward students who live nearby.

    The lottery for Pittsburgh Science and Technology Academy 6-12, known as Sci-Tech, in Oakland, also gives extra weight to students who were proficient on the state math test, had at least 90 percent attendance and other factors.

    Some programs have other requirements, such as a grade point average of at least 2.5 for students in grades nine-12 applying to pre-engineering at Allderdice in Squirrel Hill, computer science at Brashear in Beechview, Sci-Tech in Oakland and Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, which offers international studies and the International Baccalaureate diploma program.

    Admission to CAPA 6-12, Downtown, which offers a creative and performing arts program, is by audition, letter of recommendation and a student essay.

    For many years, magnet schools had a goal of 50 percent black and 50 percent other, but a range of 40 percent to 60 percent black was considered acceptable if there weren't enough applicants of one race or another.

    Enrollment in the current versions of some long-standing magnet programs now falls outside that range.

    That includes Pittsburgh CAPA 6-12, which is 31 percent black and Pittsburgh Obama 6-12 in East Liberty, which is 70 percent black and offers international studies and the International Baccalaureate program, which can lead to college credits.

    While CAPA 6-12 today is 31 percent black, CAPA 6-8, which used to be in the Rogers building in Garfield, was 42 percent black in 1993-94. CAPA 9-12, which used to be in the Baxter building in Homewood, was 56 percent black that year.

    Shealey, who herself attended Rogers, said, "It is very concerning to me we put so much money into CAPA, and it doesn't reflect the composition of the district."

    Obama, which moved to the former Peabody building last fall, is less racially balanced at 70 percent black than its predecessor schools in Oakland were.

    Obama comprises middle school grades that used to be housed in the Frick building, which was 49 percent black in 1993-94 and in high school grades that used to be in the Schenley building, which was 57 percent black in 1993-94.

    Of Obama's current racial makeup, Fink said, "I think it's an instance where people want to be in their area, and the area that it's in is more African-American than it is white."

    REVERTING TO FEEDER SCHOOLS

    Some schools are called magnet schools but also serve as assigned feeder schools for at least some of their students.

    That list includes Pittsburgh Milliones 6-12, also known as University Prep, in the Hill District; Perry High School on the North Side; and Sterrett 6-8 in Point Breeze.

    Allegheny 6-8 and Schiller 6-8, both on the North Side, this school year accepted some feeder students from the now-closed Northview PreK-8, but that pattern will change as Pittsburgh Morrow PreK-6, also on the North Side, expands into grades seven and eight.

    Students take the same program whether they entered via the magnet lottery or were assigned because of where they live.

    The district website lists one of the newer magnets, U Prep, which was phased in beginning in 2008, as having an "outstanding academic magnet program."

    However, no students were admitted to U Prep via the magnet process in fall 2012; incoming students came from the feeder pattern.

    U Prep, which counted 584 students in the fall and is 95 percent black, had been accepting about 25 students per grade level through the magnet.

    But in fall 2012, there wasn't room to admit any magnet applicants. The year before, U Prep was offered as an alternative to students who did not want to go to the single-gender program that was tried and dropped at the new Westinghouse 6-12 in fall 2011.

    Pittsburgh Perry High School on the North Side, long a traditional academy magnet, also has become essentially a feeder school. The district website calls it "a partial magnet school that focuses on developing the whole adolescent."

    However, with reassignments from the closing of Pittsburgh Oliver High School, also on the North Side, at the end of last school year, nearly all of the new students this school year were there because they live on the North Side.

    This school year, only 10 were admitted through the traditional academy magnet and seven through JROTC, a magnet program which used to be at Oliver.

    Perry has 951 students and is 74 percent black, compared to 51 percent black in 1993-94. The percentage of black students had been growing even before the Oliver students were assigned there. It was 63 percent black in 2008-09.

    With Perry largely a feeder school, Fink said she thinks that "kinda put the nail in the coffin of the traditional academies" because the elementary and middle school programs no longer have a clear path to high school.

    "They may just evolve into a neighborhood school, which is probably pretty much what they are anyway by now," she said.

    Sterrett, a long-standing classical academy magnet school, for many years accepted students only through the magnet program.

    However, since 2006, students in the feeder pattern for Minadeo PreK-5 in Squirrel Hill automatically are accepted to Sterrett, which historically was a popular choice for Minadeo families. The change was part of the district's "right-sizing" school closing and realignment plan.

    More than a fourth of Sterrett's 393 students come from Minadeo, 15 of whom signed up through the magnet, which enables them to stay at the school even if the family moves or the Minadeo feeder pattern changes.

    Sterrett this year is 73 percent black, compared with 49 percent black in 1993-94 or 54 percent black as recently as 2008-09.

    Fink said she thinks, given the introduction and impact on the curriculum of the Common Core State Standards, the concept of a classical academy has "pretty much gone by the board. I don't see much difference personally between that and a regular middle school program."

    One contributing reason for the change in racial makeup at Sterrett may be the opening of a new magnet school, Sci-Tech, in the former Frick building in Oakland.

    The new school was phased in beginning in fall 2009, has attracted a student body of 521 and is 47 percent black this school year.

    Twenty-six non-black Minadeo students, plus nine black students, who would have been assigned automatically to Sterrett this school year are enrolled in Sci-Tech.

    Alan Lesgold, dean of the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh, said one reason Sci-Tech draws a diverse group of students is many parents want their children to be prepared for a high-tech world, making its mission compelling.

    "It's an easy sell," he said. "I don't think the average person in the city of Pittsburgh knows IB. That makes Obama a harder sell."

    If parents don't know why a school matches their vision for their child, he said, "You pick by neighborhood."

    Some long-standing magnet schools remain relatively racially balanced, including Pittsburgh Carmalt PreK-8 in Overbrook, 47 percent black; Montessori PreK-8 in Friendship, 46 percent black; and Pittsburgh Classical Academy in Crafton Heights, 45 percent.

    Others are close, such as Linden K-5, in Point Breeze, 62 percent black; and Dilworth PreK-5, on the East Liberty-Highland Park line, 61 percent black.

    When the state Human Relations Commission monitored Pittsburgh, it used a formula for K-5, 6-8 and 9-12 schools to determine whether a school was racially compliant.

    Now that Pittsburgh has K-5, K-8, 6-8, 6-12 and 9-12 schools, it is difficult to reproduce the formula.

    Overall, however, the percentage of black students in Pittsburgh has grown by 7 percentage points since 1979, so the acceptable range likely would have changed as well.

    THE CHARTER SCHOOL FACTOR

    When most of the magnet programs started, charter schools, another public school choice, didn't exist. The first charter schools in the city opened in 1998.

    Charters, which do not admit based on race, are public schools operated by their own boards and, by law, use sibling preference and a lottery for admission. Parents do not pay tuition, but the home district pays a fee set by the state.

    Magnet schools still are the more popular option in Pittsburgh, with 21 percent of students living in Pittsburgh choosing magnet schools compared to 10 percent in charter schools, according to district figures.

    Most students who reside in the city, 70 percent, attend district schools.

    Of students enrolled in the district's schools, 30 percent chose magnets, not counting those assigned there by feeder pattern, according to district data.

    Black students choosing a school other than the assigned one are more likely than white students to select a magnet school.

    Of black Pittsburgh residents attending a school other than their assigned school, 46 percent choose a district magnet while only 25 percent of white students making a choice select magnet schools, according to district figures.

    Charter schools are a choice for 20 percent of black students and 15 percent of white students going to a school other than the assigned choice.

    The top choice for white students other than the assigned school is private and parochial schools, accounting for 52 percent of those making a choice, compared to 13 percent of black students making a choice.

    Shealey said, "It's an interesting commentary on our city that nonblack people choose -- as their first choice that is not a feeder school -- is to go outside of the district. So it seems like self-selected segregation."

    Lesgold that when "an awful lot of the wealthy kids aren't living in the city or are attending private schools, you no longer have a wide enough population to homogenize in the first place."

    Still, magnets remain an expanding choice nationwide.

    Scott Thomas, executive director of Magnet Schools of America, said there are about 4,000 magnet schools nationwide, with about 150 to 200 new magnet schools opening a year.

    "Districts are trying to meet the demand from their communities. They're also recognizing that magnet schools play an important role in the portfolio of choice," he said.

    Original story here.