In the Vista Unified School District, a civil rights era tool often used to improve diversity in schools appears to be creating new divisions along racial and ethnic lines.
Why this matters
Magnet schools have become one way school administrators try to keep families from leaving their districts. A competition for enrollment has been created through other school choice programs, including independently run charter schools.
An analysis by KPBS and inewsource of state and federal data suggests the area’s white, more affluent families are disproportionately benefitting from a district push to have parents choose where they enroll their children, instead of taking them to their nearest school. Many of these families are choosing the district’s newer magnet schools, while low-income and Latino students are winding up in the district’s traditional neighborhood schools.
Magnet schools were developed in the late 1960s as a way to desegregate schools by using special curriculum offerings to attract a more diverse student population.
But today, in Vista, magnets may be contributing to new pockets of racial isolation.
Magnets are district-run schools that, like charter schools, don’t have set enrollment boundaries. They seek to attract students from a larger pool with a specialized focus, such as performing arts or math and science.
“I think that on paper (magnets) are a great answer, because you do get this great school that recruits kids,” said Patrick Emaus, a math teacher and union representative in Vista Unified. “It seems fantastic, but it’s at what cost to the rest of the district?”
School choice: Who’s choosing and who isn’t
When the final bell rings at Roosevelt Middle School in the northern part of the district, a steady stream of students gathers at the bottom of the hill to wait for a North County Transit District bus.
The students are almost entirely Latino, and they stand there long after their classmates duck into nearby homes or are whisked away in cars. Sometimes the wait for a bus can be up to an hour. For some, it will take another 40 minutes on the bus before they arrive home in central Vista and pull their homework from their backpacks.
It wasn’t always this way. Some of these students would likely just cross the street to get home if they were still assigned to Washington Middle School in central Vista. But in 2014, the district turned Washington into a magnet school called VIDA, for Vista Innovation and Design Academy.
Existing Washington students were allowed to keep going there, but their younger neighbors had to enter a lottery to attend what is now VIDA or attend Roosevelt or other middle schools farther away.
The neighborhood parents — who are predominantly Latino and live in some of Vista’s poorest areas, based on U.S. Census data — would have to compete in the lottery with parents like Michelle Alves. She lives in a more affluent area, is white and was able to get her eldest son into VIDA after a couple of tries in the lottery.
Alves also spent most of 2017 emailing district officials to call attention to a trend she said she couldn’t ignore. As she observed more and more parents from her social group picking up their kids from VIDA, she also noticed the throng of kids at the bus stop near Roosevelt, her son’s neighborhood school. It was as if their families were trading places.
“The thing that I have a problem with is they seem to be shutting out a lot of kids who might benefit from these special programs,” Alves said, noting that when VIDA was still Washington, students from the neighborhood were scoring in the bottom 10 percent on state tests.
Magnet schools and Vista Unified: How we crunched the numbers
Read how inewsource and KPBS analyzed publicly available data to identify the racial disparity within the district.
To speak with families displaced by VIDA, KPBS attended a district meeting on the issue, spoke with school staff, and left letters in English and Spanish with students at bus stops over the course of several months.
One parent responded, saying the commute to school was a burden for her family and she worried what would happen if she could no longer afford the $36 a month for each of her three children to take an NCTD bus to and from school. She backed out of a formal interview for this story and stopped responding to emails, so we are not using her name.
But publicly available data shed light on what’s happening in Vista. While the data cannot confirm the “trading places” Alves described, the numbers do show steady demographic shifts accelerating after VIDA opened in 2014.
Since the 2010-2011 school year, the share of Latino students at Roosevelt grew by more than 46 percent, while the share of white students fell nearly 43 percent. Similar patterns are shown for each of the other middle schools in the district — except VIDA. There, the share of Latino students fell more than 37 percent, and the share of white students jumped more than 358 percent.
The changes occurring at Roosevelt and the other traditional middle schools are in line with what’s happening in the district overall, but at an exaggerated pace. The share of Latino middle school students in Vista Unified increased about 12 percent during the same period. The share of white students decreased about 20 percent.
The data also show a similar pattern emerging when you look at students who qualify for free and reduced-price lunch; the share of low-income children is shrinking at VIDA and growing on other campuses.
“Some of these changes that the school district has made, they moved so quickly I don’t think they really thought about the repercussions,” Alves said. “And that’s what I think we’re experiencing right now, almost like growing pains.”
Magnets: From segregation kill switch to enrollment engine
The demographic shifts in Vista Unified’s middle schools likely would not trigger a civil rights inquiry. Judges on school segregation cases typically ask districts to bring their school demographics within 10 percent to 15 percent of the district’s overall demographics. All but one of Vista’s middle schools, Rancho Minerva, met that threshold during the 2016-2017 school year.
Magnet schools also often have the explicit goal of drawing more white students into urban centers. The nation’s first magnet, McCarver Junior High in Tacoma, Washington, sought to diversify a predominantly black student body and head off the kind of school segregation cases showing up in court during the 1960s.
“It’s not necessarily a penalty or a liability to create magnet schools that are diverse and have a whole array of other zoned schools that are somewhat less diverse. That’s not necessarily the problem,” said Claire Smrekar, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University and an expert witness for the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. “The problem is to be mindful of the continuous goal of creating high quality, diverse schooling.”
But more and more, Smrekar said, magnet schools are not being used to create diverse schooling. Under the Bush and Obama administrations, federal grants began to de-emphasize the role of magnets in desegregation and push for innovation in teaching — a mantle charter schools had assumed in the 1990s.
“You have a change in emphasis and goals, an end to what many thought was a battle that was won beginning with the Brown decision,” Smrekar said, referring to the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court. “As many leaders told me here in Nashville, the battle has been won. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to really focus on college readiness, on teacher training, on ACT scores.”
She said some districts also use magnets to keep or attract parents who might choose a charter or private school for their children over a district school.
I don’t think anybody is trying to do harm. I think they’re trying to figure out a way to make Vista a better place and provide opportunities.
— Patrick Emaus, Vista Unified math teacher
While early discussions of VIDA included conversations about diversity — the school was previously 83 percent Latino — and innovation, they also focused on the need to attract students from nearby districts.
Vista Unified had been losing hundreds of students each year to other districts. At the time, the school board listed as its No. 1 goal to “attract and retain more students.” The criteria it set for measuring magnet school success were student achievement and the rate of incoming transfer students.
To that end, the district set aside 25 percent of the lottery spots at its magnets for students transferring in from other districts. It has since reduced that to 10 percent in response to complaints from some Vista parents. It also guarantees enrollment to the siblings of those transfer students.
The result: Last school year, nearly 600 came from other districts to attend a Vista Unified school, according to district records, compared to 322 during the 2012-2013 school year.
Math teacher Emaus said he expects many of the transfer students are well-off and contributing to economic and racial and ethnic disparities in the district.
“If you’re trying to get into a magnet school, then you have enough resources to drive yourself to the magnet school. You have enough resources to be aware (of the lottery process),” he said.
“I don’t think anybody is trying to do harm. I think they’re trying to figure out a way to make Vista a better place and provide opportunities,” Emaus said. “But it’s such a weird situation where if you try one thing there are all these consequences.”
Next: Reversing the trend but staying the course
District Superintendent Linda Kimble said she and her staff are working to address the consequences. Kimble joined the district in January, shortly after parents spoke up about the lottery process and shifting demographics.
In addition to reducing the number of lottery spots reserved for transfers, the district plans to expand the number of seats available at VIDA next year. To help students displaced by the magnets, it’s working to provide transportation for about 750 kids who live farther than two miles from school.
Kimble said the district also is looking for ways to make the lottery process more accessible to parents from all different backgrounds and economic groups. It holds outreach events at places other than schools, including affordable housing complexes, and keeps the magnet application process open for seven weeks.
“We’re excited to bring more resident students to VIDA, because that will create a reverse demographic shift,” Kimble said. “We would like our magnet schools to represent the district demographics, which has shifted to more increasingly Latino. So in the coming year we anticipate that there will be another shift back the other direction for VIDA.”
Kimble said the district is also working to boost the quality and attractiveness of its non-magnet schools. Temple Heights Elementary has been labeled a leadership academy, Grapevine Elementary will become a dual-language immersion school next year, and Vista High was recently awarded a $10 million foundation grant to revamp its school.
Smrekar said the changes the district is making are in line with best practices. She added the district should constantly monitor the goals and unintended consequences of its magnets, and include community members in that process as much as possible.
“This is tough and arduous work,” she said.
And it’s work that’s likely needed for some time.
Kimble said that despite the challenges with school choice, it is the best answer to shrinking enrollment due to declining birth rates and competition from other kinds of choice — charters and private schools.
“It’s very difficult to downsize, so another alternative is to attract,” she said. “Attracting students allows you to maintain your existing staff and take care of them, while attracting an excited group of students in the process.”
NOTE: inewsource Managing Editor Laura Wingard edited the story. inewsource is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS.
Correction: This story originally stated Roosevelt Middle School is in the northern part of Vista. It is a Vista Unified school in the city of Oceanside. It also stated Michelle Alves lives in Vista. She lives in Oceanside, on the border of Vista. The story also stated Claire Smrekar is a former expert witness for the Department of Justice; she is currently an expert witness.
We’ll let you know when big things happen.