The Tucson Unified School District may look at reducing the number of magnet schools despite fighting a recommendation by a desegregation expert last year to do exactly that.

A $32,000 demographic study initiated by TUSD Superintendent H.T. Sanchez found the district’s magnet schools may be hurting its effort to bring racial balance to its campuses. Under a decades-old desegregation case, TUSD is required to work toward having less than 70 percent of any one ethnic group enrolled at a campus.

Magnet schools focus on a particular theme, and are designed to encourage students from diverse backgrounds to come together outside of their individual neighborhoods.

The study by external consultant Applied Economics, found many of the district’s magnet schools are racially concentrated, and are located in racially concentrated areas, essentially attracting more Hispanic students into the school than there were to begin with.

“There are going to be some tough decisions that have to be made and if the data are what the data are, and we’re seeing magnets are actually creating more racially isolated schools, those are tough conversations that are going to have to happen,” Sanchez said.

The best solution, according to Sanchez, would be to find opportunities to support historic programs and redefine and possibly limit the number of magnet schools.

“I think those two things can be accomplished — that we sustain historic programs funding-wise and find a way to have true, fewer, meaningful magnets,” he said.

The last recommendation to reduce the number of magnet schools came from Special Master Willis Hawley, a desegregation expert appointed by the federal court to oversee the district’s efforts.

Hawley recommended several schools be stripped of their magnet status after finding they were ineffective at integrating students or promoting educational quality.

Sanchez, TUSD Governing Board President Adelita Grijalva and others argued Hawley had never visited the schools in question and said they were uncomfortable with the court determining which programs are successful.

Rather than follow the special master’s recommendation, TUSD adopted a plan that gave the schools time to make significant changes.

But the Applied Economics analysis found TUSD’s enrollment is increasingly more concentrated with Hispanic and minority students, making it nearly impossible to avoid having racially concentrated schools in some cases.

“Just in the last seven years, we’ve seen the Hispanic share of enrollment go from 55 percent to 63 percent and that’s a big change in that short a period of time, especially at a time when we’re trying to do racially integrated schools,” said Rick Brammer, a partner at Applied Economics.

Brammer added the demographic profile of TUSD students is distinctly different than that of the charter schools.

As of 2010, 30 percent of the school-age population was white, but they only made up 25 percent of TUSD’s enrollment compared to the alternative providers whose enrollment is 40 percent white.

At the same time, Hispanics made up 57 percent of the district’s school-age population. Meanwhile, TUSD was 60 percent Hispanic and alternative providers were only 48 percent Hispanic.

“Charter schools appear to be one of the factors bolstering segregation in the TUSD community,” Brammer said. “They aren’t to blame but they certainly aren’t making the situation any better.”

Of the district’s 82 school sites, 44 percent are racially concentrated, 24 percent are integrated and 31 percent are considered to be neutral. Seventy percent of the district’s magnets fall into the racially concentrated category, followed by 25 percent being identified as integrated and another 5 percent labeled neutral.

Because the district has been most successful at attracting students in the south-central portions of the city — where most of the racially concentrated schools are, one of the only possible solutions to becoming more integrated may be busing students away from their neighborhoods across the city, a practice that families have decried and that the district ended years ago.

“This kind of highlights the challenge that we face when 70 percent is our threshold,” Sanchez said.

Contact reporter Alexis Huicochea at or 573-4175. On Twitter @AlexisHuicochea

Education writer for #ThisIsTucson. Mom of one.