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Take a Number: As school board waffles, critics say magnet school admission policy is biased 

Magnet schools are a tough ticket in Bend.

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Chevy Pham is exhausted.

The stay-at-home mother of three stays on the move all day, shuttles kids to and fro, helps with homework, cooks meals, works around the house, volunteers in the community and tries to find a moment to connect with her husband who works full time.

Because time is precious and energy is finite, Pham didn't investigate why, back in 2007, her kindergartener wasn't selected from a pool of applicants, all of whom were vying for the few remaining spots at Amity Creek, a popular downtown magnet school.

In Bend, there are four magnet schools that serve elementary students, three of which are located west of 3rd Street. To determine who can attend the popular schools, the district uses a hybrid attendance policy that combines traditional neighborhood school boundaries and an at-large lottery system open to everyone in the district. Recently, though, that system has come under fire from parents like Pham and Amity's own principal who believe it serves to enhance, rather than mitigate, the district's existing economic segregation, limiting educational options for students.

Magnet schools, which are funded and staffed at the same levels as other district schools, are allowed greater freedoms in the types of courses and curricula that they offer - much more so than traditional public schools. In the Bend-La Pine District, magnets Westside Village, Highland, Amity Creek and Juniper Elementary choose to focus on a certain areas of emphasis (such as technology, community or living green) and are structured around particular instructional methodologies. Though very happy with the quality of education her son is receiving at his non-magnet school, the name of which she prefers to keep private, Pham believes the teaching style at Amity Creek is a better fit. After five years of waiting, though, she has yet to break through the lottery, despite the fact that her son was at one point at the top of the waiting list last year. When an available spot opened, it was promptly claimed by a family that lives within the neighborhood. Pham says it's an example of just how little the magnets are drawing from outside their neighborhood boundaries.

The Bend-La Pine district's own policy, states that, "the magnet school will provide equal opportunity for all nationalities, races, ethnic groups, abilities and genders within Bend-La Pine Schools." Furthermore, it defines magnet schools as institutions, "designed to serve students from throughout the district," hence the "magnet" moniker. A lottery system promises some semblance of fairness in admissions, but this has not been the experience of parents like Pham.

At Amity Creek, the 71 kids on the waiting list last year didn't have much of a chance at enrolling. Nearly all the of the school's 176 spots were taken by those who live within the magnet zone or are siblings of existing students.

Pham and other concerned parents have taken exception to what they deem an equity and access issue at the district's magnets. Currently, the admission policy for the magnets favors those who live in the designated "magnet zones" outlined by the district, a policy that they say contradicts the guiding principles for the schools and one that Pham would like to see eliminated. Additionally, magnets also give preferential admission treatment to the children of staff members. While no one is suggesting families be broken up, the sibling and staff policy further diminishes the hopes for those on the lottery waiting list. In the case of Amity Creek, the attendance zone stretches as far north as Newport Avenue, east to Hwy. 97, south to Industrial Way and west to Tumalo Avenue and the Deschutes River.

Because of Amity's relatively small enrollment, competition is fierce. Last year, Amity Creek's lottery system admitted only two children from its waiting list. Some parents have even resorted to falsifying information about their permanent address in an effort to gain admission, says Amity Creek principal Carol Hammett. Such blatant dishonesty has forced Hammett to add "detective" to her job description.

The school board is looking closely at the magnet zone issue and will decide if a change needs to be made to the policy at their next meeting on Dec. 8.

The current policies are a result of work done by the board to balance the various competing interests of parents who live both within and outside of the zones, says Superintendent Ron Wilkinson.

"(Erasing the zones) can probably do more damage than good at this point" says Wilkinson.

Not so, says Pham.

Underlying the discussion about lotteries and boundary lines is a basic question of fairness, says Pham who has taken her case directly to the school board.

"Since certain magnet schools are located in affluent neighborhoods, to treat magnet schools as 'neighborhood schools' is unfair. What's missing from the discussion is the fundamental question, 'Is it morally and ethically just to give preferential admission to a small, exclusive group?'" Pham asked just that question in a public statement to the Bend-La Pine School Board during the most recent meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Pham points to the district's free and reduced lunch program numbers as evidence of the inequity in the schools. As it stands now, the Bend community is not always evenly represented among the magnets. While a significant percentage of students at Juniper and Westside Village are on a free or reduced meal plan (60 percent and 43 percent, respectively), the best indicator of economic status, only 25 percent of the student body at Amity Creek is on such a plan. At Highland, a mere 11 percent need such accommodations. By way of comparison, Bear Creek Elementary, located on the eastside, has 77 percent of its students enrolled in the meal-assistance program. To qualify for the program, households of two (for example, a single mother with one child) cannot earn more than $27,214 per year. Pham and others argue that the homogenous culture created by the magnet zones is far from the true intention of magnet schools.

While area principals and even some school board members are sympathetic to the problems associated with the magnet zone, Hammett has been one of the few bold enough to openly criticize the policy and ask for change.

"I am advocating strongly for the removal of the zones - one step closer to equity," says Hammet. "We would love to reflect the Bend community at our school."

It's true that there is no easy fix. Erasing the magnet zones could create other logistical problems, according to area principals and school board members.

"Some of the positive benefits of the magnets could be lost if we eliminate the zone," says Beth Bagley, a school board member and parent who fears that magnets like Westside Village, already considered a diverse community, would suffer unnecessarily. But Bagley is undecided on how best to resolve the access issue.

"As soon as you increase access for one portion of the population you're decreasing access for someone else," says Highland principal Paul Dean.

Board member Nori Juba takes the position one step further.

"If you live within a block or two of the school, you should be able to attend that school ... it's common sense," Juba says.

While no one is arguing against the benefits of living within walking distance of school, parents who don't live on the westside have a tough time swallowing the concept that the educational options available to their children are limited.

"I would definitely like to see energy put into investigating this (magnet zone issue). I know that are other parents experiencing more frustrations," says Paul Arney, a parent and former brewer at Deschutes Brewery who lives outside of magnet zones and has a child on the waiting list at Amity. Although quite pleased with his child's teachers and the amenities available at Warren E. Miller Elementary, Arney says his child would benefit from Amity's nontraditional approach.

Transportation and overcrowding are two more tricky issues that would require attention if the zones were dissolved. School board members have pointed out that High Lakes and Miller may become overcrowded if fewer neighborhood students attend the magnets. Overcrowding at High Lakes was one of the original driving factors in the creation of the zones, erasing or shrinking the zones would only allow an old issue to return. Pham and other critics argue that the issue has largely been addressed with the opening of Miller Elementary on Bend's far westside.

However, if the board is unwilling to change the school zones, then they should strip the magnets of their status and convert them to neighborhood schools, contends Pham.

"Then no one feels left out," Pham says, hoping that by suggesting such a drastic change she will spur other parents to action.

"We either have magnets that are fair for everyone or we should have neighborhood schools for all, she adds.

An immigrant whose family arrived in the U.S. in 1976 after escaping Vietnam in a small fishing boat, Pham said she has become accustomed to enduring discrimination. So when Pham's son was again passed over in the lottery for a second year, she began to stew. It wasn't until her son was denied a spot at Amity Creek for the fifth consecutive year that Pham was spurred to action. She gathered her available time and energy in order to challenge a system she sees as unjust.

Pham says she has every right to be upset.

"The lottery system is completely opaque," notes Pham.

Pham has all but given up on the idea of her fourth-grader ever being able to break through Amity's lottery system. But she holds out hope for her two other children, as well as those who find themselves in a similar predicament.

"I advocate for all the families who don't live within a magnet zone boundary, who acquiesce to the unfair admission policy because they've given up hope that things will ever be fair," Pham said.

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