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Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista

Two Roosevelt Middle School students wait for a North County Transit District Bus on North Santa Fe Avenue in Oceanside, June, 6, 2017.
Katie Schoolov
Two Roosevelt Middle School students wait for a North County Transit District Bus on North Santa Fe Avenue in Oceanside, June, 6, 2017.
Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista
Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista GUEST:Megan Burks, education reporter, KPBS News

I am Maureen Cavanaugh. And analysis suggests a civil rights tool used to improve diversity in schools, appears to be creating new divisions in the Vista unified school district. The reporter Megan Burke has the story. >> When the final bell rings in the middle school in the northern part of Vista, a steady stream ups students gathers at the bottom of the hill. The students are almost entirely Latino. Sometimes they wait for an hour for the bus. The bus ride home is another 40 minutes. It was not always this way. Some of the students would cross the street to get home, if they were going to Washington middle school in Vista. In 2014, the neighborhood school became different. >> I'm the founding principle of Vista innovation design Academy. The district turned Washington into a magic school. The specialized public schools do not have enrollment boundaries. They try to attract students with a unique focus, like performing arts or math and science. In addition to a new name, they got new curriculum. >> We are the sharks we innovate, design. Jump in our tank. Four years later, administrators are worrying that jumping in is harder for some than others. They were busing students further away. The parents are predominantly Latino and don't live in the area, would have to enter a district lobby. The news analysis of state and federal data, suggest many are either not entering or not winning. Areas white more affluent children, are disproportionately represented at schools like this. Latinos are winding up in traditional district schools. >> Michelle Al's lives in a more affluent part of Vista. She was able to get into Vida after a couple tries at the lottery. She's worried about neighborhood children were not getting in. >> I have a problem with that they seem to be shutting out a lot of students that might benefit. >> They might benefit because when Vida was in Washington, students in the neighborhood were scoring in the bottom 10% on tests. >> Some of the changes that the school district has made, they move so quickly I don't think they thought about the repercussions. They have growing pains. >> Students tried to take four months. One parent responded, the commute to school was a burden for her family. She dropped out of a formal interview. The DHR did not tell the story of how things were changing. Since 2010, the sheriff has falling between 30 and 50% at each of the middle schools. Accepted Vida. The students he grew 358%. That jump makes the white heavily Latina school more diverse than it was. Now Latinas are overrepresented in their district overall. It is not an immediate red flag. >> It is not necessarily a liability to create schools that are diverse and have a whole other young schools that are less diverse. Have been studying school segregation for three decades. She points out during the civil rights era, the exclusive aim of magnet schools was to blend students into her dominantly black schools priestesses today, districts need to be mindful that magnets can's create integration. >> You don't want to create an island of privilege. You don't want to exacerbate any pockets of isolation or segregation. >> That is my next year, the district plans to offer more Vida and limit the number of students I could transfer from outside the district. >> For the children who still don't get in and have to take the bus elsewhere, Kimble is looking to make sure it is a school bus they are waiting for. K PBS news. Megan joins me now. >> Remind us of the connection between magnet schools in the civil rights movement. >> The first magnet school opened in 1968, right on the end of the civil rights movement. First met in school was into, Washington. The school administrator for that time was full of segregation cases pop up. They challenged what was happening in schools. Let's get ahead of this. Let's open a magnet school, it would be attractive to all kinds of parents. It would draw why schools into a predominantly black area. You could desegregate schools. White parents would move their children elsewhere, so they do not have to go to those rules. That is what was happening. >> What prompted them to open this magnet school. >> Previously Vida was Washington. There was also discussion about wanting to create innovation in teaching. It is pretty common with magnet school today. By far the focus seems to be on attracting more students to the high school district. At that time never looking timer losing hundreds of schools. If you look through the documents, there's a lot of discussion about that spring in fact the district at the time, had its number one goal to attract and retain more students. The resetting criteria for measuring the success of these magnet schools. The first was achievement, the second was how many transfer students it was attracting. >> You said that demographic shifts caused by Vida magnet schools are not raising red flags. What does she mean by that? >> It goes back to the idea that magnet school are sometimes created to bring in more white students. And has done this. That school is more diverse than it used to be. It is just that now, it is over representative of white students. She says in school segregation cases, the judge will ask the district to bring their school demographics to within 10 to 15% of their demographics. If you have 30% Latino know your school needs to be within 10 to 15%. It is not terribly off-balance. But it is off-balance. >> It is up to the district to monitor those percentages blessed for >> yes. >> When did you become aware that it was causing a problem with the >> every year they take a look at school demographics. They may have known about it much earlier. That last year, parents don't draw attention to the magnet program they were concerned about the number of transfers students coming into the district. They say it is from Vista students. At that time the personnel had to take a look at their programming. They had to see the patterns it was creating. >> He said some kids that were displaced have a 40 minute bus ride home. How did you find out how that change has impacted the cure ads? >> I tried to find a family that was impacted. I want to district meetings on the issue. I tried to work with counselors that would plummet of families that were impacted. I spoke with students asking their parents to call me. I did hear from one parent who eventually backed out of the formal interview. we are not using her name. she said she had a big $36 a month per child, to take the bus to get to and from school. that can be a burden for some parents. if she ended up not being able to afford that, they would have to ride their bikes. that could be a 45 minute bike ride to and from school. the thing about Vista, a lot of roads are country roads. It is an agriculture area. there are narrow winding roads that kids have to be riding their bikes on. speed and went >> they are increasing access to Vista. That might bring more Latinos into school. There limiting the number of transfers students that can come in. transfer students tend to be more white and affluent. They have parents that are very engaged looking for other options. they are trying to provide bus service for kids who are displaced. >> what does your story tells about whether magnet schools are serving your originally intended purpose? >> It has been sensitive and difficult to balance. the goal was to bring more white students in. to had to be monitored very closely. that is still the case. magnet schools are beginning to focus more on innovation. the Obama administration the idea of diversity, went away. was more about, how can we score innovation education. we cannot forget about racial demographics. >> I have been speaking with K PBS education reporter, Megan Burks. thank you.

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.

An analysis by KPBS and inewsource of state and federal data suggests the area’s white, more affluent families are disproportionately benefiting 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 by public school districts 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.

“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?”

Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista

School Choice: Who’s Choosing And Who Isn’t


When the final bell rings at Roosevelt Middle School in the northern part of Vista Unified, 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.

RELATED: Magnet Schools And Vista Unified: How We Crunched The Numbers

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.

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 administration, 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 with the Brown decision and, later, with a whole array of school district court orders,” 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.

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 students 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.”

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. The story has been updated. We regret the errors.

Once Used To Integrate Schools, Magnets May Be Creating Divisions In Vista
A data analysis by KPBS and inewsource suggests Vista’s white, more affluent children are disproportionately benefiting from Vista Unified School District’s magnet schools.


Corrected: May 31, 2023 at 2:59 AM PDT
inewsource Managing Editor Laura Wingard edited the story. inewsource is an independently funded nonprofit partner of KPBS.