District 191 may shift magnet approach
All parents may be asked to choose their school
District 191 School Board members reaffirmed their commitment to magnet schools June 21 but gave the go-ahead for a fresh look at the program.
What could emerge are even more magnet schools or programs across the district and a process by which each family chooses its elementary school.
A “controlled-choice” system would cluster elementary schools by geography and require parents to choose one school within the cluster.
Meeting in a workshop June 21, Burnsville-Eagan-Savage board members directed Superintendent Randy Clegg to study a controlled-choice system with expanded magnet opportunities.
Such a system could more evenly distribute students in schools across the district, which range from 78 percent full (Sioux Trail Elementary) to 123 percent (William Byrne Elementary).
It could also chip away at nagging concentrations of poor and minority students while exposing more of them to magnet opportunities. One elementary school — Sky Oaks in Burnsville, with about 70 percent minority students — has been labeled “racially identified” by the state Education Department.
So far, the district’s three years of offering magnets have produced enrollment numbers that don’t match the district’s makeup.
Seventy-five percent of magnet students don’t qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, compared with 48 percent of the full student body, Clegg said.
“The magnets have not attracted a sample population that is representative of our general student demographics,” he said in an interview. “It is a concern, because if you only attract one segment of your total student population, it means there’s another segment of students who are not, for whatever reason, accessing the opportunities that are available in the district.”
Complicating the magnet issue is the likelihood that a school will be closed before the 2013-14 school year. The board has asked for budget-cutting recommendations for 2013-14 that include a school closing.
Clegg is expected to deliver recommendations for the budget, the magnet system and a school closing in September. Clegg said he doesn’t know which school might be recommended for closing.
The district now has a gifted and talented magnet school at Harriet Bishop Elementary and Eagle Ridge Junior High in Savage, a STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) magnet school at William Byrne Elementary in Burnsville and a STEM magnet program at Metcalf Junior High in Burnsville, an AVID college-prep magnet school at Nicollet Junior High in Burnsville, and an arts and technology magnet school at Rahn Elementary in Eagan.
A district arts high school magnet, Envision Academy, closed in 2011 because of low enrollment.
Though magnet costs are being funded from an annual $1.4 million in state integration funds meant to promote racial integration between 191 and the far less diverse Lakeville district, magnets haven’t integrated 191 students and have attracted hardly any Lakeville students.
“What we haven’t seen is the inter-district movement” of students between Burnsville and Lakeville, Clegg said.
Integration funding has been scrutinized in recent years by wary state legislators. If it’s curtailed or eliminated, the district can offer magnets without the funding, Clegg said, citing the low-budget startup of Rahn’s arts and technology magnet, which drew 65 students from outside the attendance boundary during the past school year.
“You can go Cadillac or you can go Chevrolet,” he told the board. The district has also sought ways to wean its magnets off of integration funding, Board Chair Ron Hill said.
Integration transportation funding covers 90 percent of the cost of busing students from anywhere in the district to their magnet schools. Controlled-choice clusters would hold down the cost of busing to magnets.
Eliminating magnets would put 191 at a competitive disadvantage to surrounding districts that have them, Board Member Jim Schmid said.
“It’s my opinion that we grow the program,” said Board Member Paula Teiken, who also voiced concern about uneven enrollments and concentrations of low-income students across the district. “It’s good for our districts, it’s good for student choice.”
Magnet teachers and parents are more engaged with their schools, Board Member Bob VandenBoom said.
“The struggle I’m having is, are we creating more of a gap or are we increasing gaps?” he said.
Forcing all families to make a school choice would, theoretically, boost parent engagement in the schools. Clegg said some studies have found that otherwise disengaged parents “are as engaged and committed to the school as any other parent” when forced to choose a school.
District officials may have another reason for wanting to expose more students to its magnets: perception.
Magnet schools are sometimes perceived as “being better, better resourced, and the other schools become second-class cousins,” said Clegg, who rejects the perception.
Sky Oaks ‘racially identifiable’
Based on this past year’s enrollment, the state Education Department has labeled SkyOaks “racially identified,” Clegg said in an interview.
That means the school has at least 20 percent more minority students than elementary schools districtwide, which are just under 50 percent minority, he said.
In response, the state requires the district to develop a plan to promote racial intermingling within the district, Clegg said.
The district must also provide documentation to help the state determine whether the district contributed to the school’s heavy minority concentration through such means as attendance boundaries.
In 2010, the board rejected attendance-boundary changes recommended by a board-appointed task force. The changes, which would have affected 774 elementary students, were loudly opposed by many parents.
Instead, the district set up an incentive program, including free or subsidized all-day kindergarten, to try to attract students to Rahn.
It targeted Sky Oaks specifically, offering free busing in targeted Sky Oaks neighborhoods.
The approach has been “marginally successful at best,” Clegg said.
Rahn’s magnet program has boosted attendance. The school is up to 82 percent of capacity, compared with 62 percent in 2010.
The district hasn’t changed boundaries in about 15 years, since Harriet Bishop opened, he noted.