Tear Down the Magnet School Class Barrier | The Source Weekly - Bend, Oregon

Tear Down the Magnet School Class Barrier

Admission rules for magnet schools will be under review on December 8.

When magnet schools first came into favor in the 1960s and 1970s, the idea was that they'd promote desegregation by drawing students from predominantly white areas (like a magnet, get it?) to schools in mostly black areas that offered an enriched curriculum in things like science or the arts.

While the success of magnet schools as a desegregation tool was mixed, there was no question the kids who attended them reaped a significant benefit, and the magnet school idea took off. By the start of the 21st Century there were more than 3,000 magnet schools all over the country, in small cities as well as big ones.

As magnet schools became more popular, the challenge became not how to attract students to them but how to fairly determine who got the limited number of spots available. It's a challenge the Bend-LaPine School District has sadly failed to meet.

The district currently has four magnet schools. Three of them - Amity Creek, Westside Village and Highland - are on Bend's relatively affluent west side; Juniper Elementary is the lone magnet school on the more middle- and working-class east side. Demand for places in the magnet schools far exceeds supply.

The district assigns spots in the magnet schools through a lottery - but the game is rigged. Applicants who live in the neighborhood of the school get priority. So do kids who have a sibling in the school or a parent who's on the faculty or staff.

The end result is that kids who live outside the neighborhood - and that mostly means east-side kids - are pretty much frozen out. For example, over the last two years Amity Creek has admitted only three kindergarteners who came from outside its zone and weren't siblings of other students or children of staff members.

The intent may not be to discriminate against kids from "the wrong side of the tracks" (or the wrong side of the Parkway) but the outcome sure looks that way. As Chevy Pham, a parent who's tried unsuccessfully for years to get her child into Amity Creek, told the school board earlier this month: "Since certain magnet schools are located in affluent neighborhoods, to treat magnet schools as 'neighborhood schools' is unfair. ... Is it morally and ethically just to give preferential admission to a small, exclusive group?"

The district's own policy states that magnet schools "will provide equal opportunity for all nationalities, races, ethnic groups, abilities and genders" and are "designed to serve students from throughout the district." The present geographically weighted admissions policy makes a joke of those principles.

The idea that students should be able to go to their neighborhood school is undeniably appealing, and nobody likes to have their kids riding buses for hours. But in this case, fundamental fairness ought to trump considerations of convenience. Every student in the Bend-LaPine district deserves equal access to educational opportunity, regardless of where he or she lives.

The school board will be reviewing the magnet school admissions rules on Dec. 8. It should join us in giving this inequitable policy THE BOOT.

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