TUSD’s magnets are attracting criticism not students

Note: Tonight, the Tucson Unified School District’s Superintendent will deliver his “State of the District” address. Many in attendance will be waiting for him to address the district’s desegregation failures and proposed plan of action for success.

In over thirty three years, the Tucson Unified School District’s magnet program, which is described as the “cornerstone of the District’s integration plan” had never undergone a review. This past July, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals found that the Tucson Unified School District acted in bad faith in its desegregation efforts.

Among the actions required by the Post Unitary Status Plan was a review of the magnet programs. While the district has failed to fulfill many of the requirements or agreements outlined in the PUSP, it did order an audit.

That audit performed by Education Consulting Services arrived at disappointing, but not surprising conclusions. It reveals too many failing schools without direction and support that have not succeeded in integrating the district. Instead, it appears that students remain racially isolated.

One example of the racial isolation of students is Davis Elementary School. While the students at Davis seem to have some success in performance, the school is not the dual language/bilingual school it claims to be. Instead, “the review team was told that everyone really understands it is an immersion program rather than a dual language/bilingual program, the program should be correctly identified and marketed as a “Spanish Immersion.” There are important differences immersion and dual language/bilingual programs that parents should understand.”

“Students in K-1 are taught totally in Spanish. In grade 2, English literature is introduced and by the second semester teaching is 85% Spanish with 15% English.” Many students, not all, are able “to communicate (speak, read, and write) in both languages” but unlike true bilingual programs which offer two languages 50% percent of the time, Davis employs Spanish 70% and English 30% of the time.

When asked how the school could offer curriculum contrary to their stated Board approved focus, staff said that it was the way they had always done it. One district official said “with a 70%/30% split, it is hard to imagine that they will attract many English speaking students.”

The audit’s team of six experts included educational professionals with experiences in a number of areas including, human resources, evaluation and accountability, educational law, equity assistance, school desegregation and student integration, magnet program development, curricular expertise and professional development. Each member of the team was a credentialed teacher with experience teaching in public schools.”

Not surprisingly, the auditors found that the back to basics “magnet at Dodge deserves note. As with Bonillas, the team that visited this magnet believes that all middle schools should be offering a strong, basic core curriculum. Dodge has no magnet curriculum or curricular enhancements. It is the strict level of application of the traditional, back-to-basics approach that makes Dodge different from other district middle school offerings. As a magnet program, this school is successful.”

The audit report validated what many had thought, but would never dare to say; University High School is essentially a publically funded private school.

The audit was supposed to determine if each school’s program(s) support student integration and positively affect student achievement. The theory behind the use of magnet schools is to “create a school so distinctive and appealing – so magnetic – that it will draw a diverse range of families from throughout the community eager to enroll their children, even if it means having them bused to a different, and perhaps, distant neighborhood.

However, University High has only affected student achievement for select students. Unfortunately the same can be said of three other high school magnets as well.  According to the audit, “Cholla, Pueblo and Tucson High remain racially isolated with Hispanic populations of 70% or higher when compared to the district’s high school Hispanic population of 54.8%.”

“Only one of the seven high school magnets, University, has an Anglo enrollment of 54.5% while the district’s high school Anglo enrollment is 30.5%. This is a 24.0% difference. University also has an Asian enrollment of 12.7% while the district’s high school Asian population is 3.5%.”

The audit concluded that “the school’s admission requirements ensure that the school enrolls only highly gifted and academically successful students. The program is more of a seminar/GA TE program, serving the needs of some highly gifted and motivated students, than a magnet program. University’s student body does not reflect the TUSD community.”

While the audit reviewed University High School as a magnet, “University High School’s College Prep Magnet has not been recognized by the Governing Board as a magnet.” Despite this, University Prep Magnet is treated by the district as a magnet for their own funding purposes.

“As a result of visiting each magnet school, the visiting consultants noticed a number of emerging themes and issues across the majority of TUSD’s magnet schools/programs.” The auditors found that subjects interviewed believe that “there is a lack of district-level understanding regarding magnet schools and their programs. This belief is rooted in the fact that some decisions made at central office negatively impact a magnet school and its desegregation efforts.”

Audit findings include:

• The schools are unaware of enrollment/diversity goals and diversity is not reflected in many school enrollments.

• There is no policy or process for creating new magnet schools or significantly revising an existing magnet program.

• There is a lack of understanding that magnet schools benefit, and should be attractive to, both neighborhood and non-neighborhood students and their parents.

• Magnet funding allocations vary significantly and in many cases were difficult to determine; desegregation funds were used by schools in a variety of ways.

The findings indicate that district created the magnet program without any real commitment to it. It appears that it was developed to create a feel good, grant driven jobs program rather than meeting the basic needs of all students which will most surely lead to success.

They were not created on Tucson’s east side which would have brought kids of color into white neighborhood schools. Instead they were created to keep kids where they were. Programs such as the one at Davis have guaranteed that remains the case. Then they bused kids of color to the east side, but provided them no additional services that the desegregation funds were for, to secure their success.

Early on in the desegregation process, the Fisher plaintiffs fought for one thing and one thing only, closing the achievement gap by providing a quality education for every TUSD student.

In the series of articles on the magnet audit, we will ask one question; after millions of desegregation dollars spent, are the students getting what we have paid for?