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Parents Question Vista Unified Proposal To Change Magnet Lottery Process

A sign at the Vista Academy of Performing Arts advertises a "world-class learning environment," Dec. 12, 2018.
Megan Burks
A sign at the Vista Academy of Performing Arts advertises a "world-class learning environment," Dec. 12, 2018.

The Vista Unified School Board will hear a plan Thursday to change its magnet school lottery process. The plan has angered some parents, but the district’s superintendent says it’s needed to balance school demographics.

Magnets are public schools that attract parents with specialized instruction, and often run enrollment lotteries because of their popularity.

A KPBS investigation earlier this year found that process might be contributing to pockets of racial isolation in the district by attracting more white families and displacing Latino students into the district’s other, poorer performing schools. From the 2010-2011 school year until 2016-2017, the white populations of Vista’s magnet schools increased by 38 percent, while the district’s overall white population decreased by nearly 17 percent. At the same time, the Latino populations of the magnets dropped by 20 percent, while the district’s overall Latino student body increased by 8 percent.


It's a pattern Superintendent Linda Kimble said she hopes to stop by giving more students a chance to get into the magnets.

“I just want a fair chance for students to get in, and right now they have less than 50 percent — about 50 percent of the pipeline is already full before they put their papers in,” Superintendent Linda Kimble said.

School lotteries tend to favor more well-resourced parents who have the time and know-how to apply. Vista’s lottery process may have given these families an additional edge by giving enrollment priority to the younger siblings of those who already got in and students going from one magnet to another. It also sets aside spots for students transferring from other districts.

Vista Unified Demographics

Special Education Students

Magnets: 10.6 percent

Non-magnets: 14.2 percent

English Learners

Magnets: 11.7 percent

Non-magnets: 21.8 percent

College Graduate Parent

Magnets: 47.8 percent

Non-magnets: 29.5 percent

English Spoken in Home

Magnets: 64.7 percent

Non-magnets: 53.2 percent

Spanish Spoken in Home

Magnets: 32.1 percent

Non-magnets: 44.2 percent

Hispanic/Latino Heritage

Magnets: 52.6 percent

Non-magnets: 68.8 percent

Source: Vista Unified School District

Kimble's proposal would eliminate these priorities unless siblings are going to the same campus. It would also eliminate priority status for students who are homeless or in foster care, those coming from outside the district, and those who are the children of district employees and military personnel. In short, it would become an open lottery.

The parents argue the proposal doesn’t address the underlying problem of getting parents to apply.


“My greatest concern, frankly, is that she’s going to make the problem worse — that we’re going to see growing inequality and whiter magnet schools — because the people who are able to apply are going to be the ones who have a computer at home, can go online and look for the deadline, fill it out online, print it out from their home printer, get into their car, drive it to the school, turn it into the receptionist and talk to that receptionist,” said Shiloh Strawbridge, whose daughter attends the Vista Academy of Performing Arts, or VAPA.

“That favors a certain demographic,” she continued, “and that demographic now has free rein to apply for as many slots as they like.”

Parents have formed a Facebook group and have been meeting with board members in advance of Thursday’s vote. They want the board to instead create a committee to brainstorm alternative solutions. The district has surveyed parents and held listening forums.

The parents are also urging the district to improve outreach to low-income communities about the program before they radically change the lottery. Parent Julie Kelly said Vista Magnet Middle School, for example, has a high number of Latino students because its founding principal went door to door recruiting families in Spanish.

“Making an open lottery with an online application will not create that intimacy that seems to be needed for some of our most socio-economically disadvantaged families to be able to access the magnet programs,” said Kelly, whose two children benefited from the magnet-to-magnet priority.

Kimble said she recognizes that changing the lottery is only a small piece of the puzzle and that the district needs to increase outreach. But she said she can’t let another year go by where so many children have little choice but to walk more than three miles to the next school because they couldn’t get into their neighborhood magnet.

Kimble said 84 percent of students who attend Rancho Minerva Middle School in the eastern part of Vista actually live closer to Vista Magnet Middle School but either didn’t apply to the magnet or didn’t get in. The district added new bus routes to help displaced kids, but Kimble said it isn’t enough to right the problem.

The parents who spoke out against Kimble’s plan said they sympathize, but worry it will leave the district worse off.

At a time when districts all over are struggling to keep students from leaving for charter schools, the magnet-to-magnet priority is a big draw for families in and out of the district. It represents a cohesive pathway since many magnets share similar outlooks, if not the same focus.

RELATED: San Diego Unified Superintendent Seeks Charter Changes Following Critical Report

“The reason I put her here is because of the pathway,” Reina Ceballos said outside of her daughter’s magnet elementary school. “She was going to have priority to get into the magnet middle school. So now they take that away? If my child wasn’t to get into the middle school that I want, I would probably go back to charter schools.”

Ceballos said she worries the district would hemorrhage students if it dismantles these pathways, impacting revenue for all schools.

Kimble said she is open to keeping the pathway in place for magnets with International Baccalaureate programs, which she sees as a stronger link between schools than magnet status alone.

The board will have a chance to make that amendment at its meeting Thursday. Parents will be lining up to share their own ideas at the dais.

Correction: Julie Kelly praised outreach efforts by the principal of Vista Magnet Middle School, not the Vista Academy of Performing Arts. The story was also updated to clarify that the parents are not questioning bringing equity to magnets, describe their communication with the district, and to provide more context to the racial equity concerns.

Parents Question Vista Unified Plan To Bring Equity To Magnet Schools
Earlier this year, KPBS detailed how magnet schools — once used to desegregate schools — were contributing to new racial divides in Vista Unified. The board will vote tonight on a possible solution, but some parents say it goes too far.

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