A magnet plan recently passed by TUSD’s Governing Board has been rejected by the desegregation expert put in place to oversee district efforts to bring racial balance to its schools.
In September, the board decided against approving a magnet plan created by the special master, which would have eliminated popular programs at several schools. Instead, it authorized its staff to come up with a magnet plan.
The plan the Tucson Unified School District approved will have little to no impact on desegregation efforts, Willis Hawley, the special master, wrote in letter to the parties involved in the desegregation case. In the past, Hawley has argued that TUSD needs to “bite the bullet” and move decisively to eliminate several magnets so that new ideas can be pursued.
By definition, magnet schools focus on a certain theme: a specific academic area, a particular career or a specialized learning environment. They are designed to encourage students of diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to come together outside of their individual neighborhoods to take part in the magnet school’s offerings.
But the schools that were spared by TUSD — Carrillo and Davis elementary schools and Pueblo High School — are far from serving what is considered an integrated population. To be considered integrated, a campus must have less than 70 percent of any one ethnic group enrolled. At all three of the spared magnets, the percentage of Hispanic students ranges from 86 percent to 90 percent.
The district embarked on creating its own plan with new criteria after hearing impassioned pleas from parents and community members who spoke of the tradition of generations of families attending the same school and the values that their programs promoted.
“I believe that this plan … while it has some strengths, has some provisions that significantly limit options for a meaningful comprehensive magnet plan,” Hawley wrote in the letter. “We can also see the politics of the situation promoted the status quo and will do so in the future.”
While TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez recognizes the need for diversity, he does not agree with the existing 70 percent standard for integration.
“Currently, our student demographics cause a problem with the 70 percent standard,” Sanchez explained to the Governing Board in a memo. “When the suit was filed nearly 40 years ago, minority student groups comprised between 20 to 25 percent of total student enrollment in TUSD.”
The lawsuit, about access to quality education for minority students, led to magnet schools, which were considered a tool for access and the integration of students from minority and majority populations. Today, Latino students make up 64 percent of the TUSD population and African-American students account for 7 percent.
With the existing 70 percent standard, magnet campuses with high Hispanic enrollment now must give preference to non-Hispanic students for enrollment, Sanchez said.
“In essence, because the demographics have flipped, the desegregation court order that provided access to quality programming to African-American students and Latino students is now limiting access for one of the two groups that originally filed the suit — Latino students,” Sanchez said.
Rather than move forward with the special master’s plan, the new plan — approved last month — gave the spared schools two years to make significant changes. Other schools that were at risk of losing of their status were given a three-year window. Hawley called the two- and three-year timelines unacceptable.
Among Hawley’s concerns: The district’s plan does not make clear that the attainment of integrated status is the only necessary criterion to be designated a magnet school.
He also notes that other criteria for securing and sustaining magnet status are important, but the most important of these should be influence on student achievement. He said all magnet schools should be expected to, at a minimum, achieve a B grade, “regardless of how interesting the theme is or how well the school does on other criteria.”
To put this another way, being a mediocre magnet school is not an option.”
Hawley also pointed out that specific goals for showing improvement are nonexistent in the district’s plan, saying: “In the absence of specific goals, politics will determine the outcomes, micro-politics at that.”
While the special master has the power to file an objection in federal court to the plan approved by the TUSD Governing Board, he has agreed to hold off on doing so if TUSD agrees to remedy his concerns in a comprehensive magnet plan by this spring.
TUSD has not responded to Hawley, saying meetings with affected campuses need to be held again to address Hawley’s concerns.