LITTLE ROCK As many as 5,276 students are on waiting lists for the Little Rock School District’s six original magnet schools.
Eighty-three percent, or 4,385, of the students on the district’s 2012-13 waiting lists are black students, according to data provided by the district.
Many won’t be called to fill a vacancy - even in cases where a vacant seat might open.
In comparison, there are 891 students who are white or of other races on the waiting lists for the special-program schools. The magnet schools were established to have a 50-50 black-to-“nonblack” racial ratio with an allowed variation of up to 5 percentage points.
One Little Rock attorney has called the magnitude and preponderance of black students on the magnet school waiting lists - coupled with the fact that some magnet school seats go unfilled - Little Rock School District’s “dirty little secret.”
Jess Askew III raised the issue before the state Board of Education in April, saying that large numbers of black students are denied entry into the city’s magnet schools - despite vacant seats - in the name of preserving the50-50 racial ratio required for those schools.
Askew is an attorney for open-enrollment charter schools that compete with magnet schools and all other kinds of schools for students in the Pulaski County area.
The issue comes at a time when the state is asking for release from a 1989 settlement and accompanying agreements that include state-funded magnet schools.
The magnet schools are Booker Arts, Carver Math and Science, Gibbs International Studies and Williams Traditional Academy magnet elementary schools; Horace Mann Arts and Sciences Magnet Middle School; and Parkview Arts and Science Magnet High School.
Representatives of the Little Rock School District and the Magnet Review Committee that sets policy for the magnet schools disagree with Askew’s “dirty secret” label for the waiting lists.
Frederick Fields, the district’s senior director of student services, in an interview attributed the large racial disparity on the waiting lists and the inability to fill all vacant seats mostly to the independently operated, public charter schools that Askew champions.
With the establishment of open-enrollment charter schools in the early 2000s, the disparity in the lists widened, Fields said.
“When charter schools came into play, then that opened the door for more of our nonblack students to have other [school] options, more choices,” Fields said. “Absolutely, the disproportionality has increased as charter schools opened.”
The charter school draw has a greater effect on nonblack students in the district because there are fewer of them.
The district has assigned students to the schools for the coming year.
As vacancies occur during the summer and at the beginning of the school year, students from the waiting lists will be called to fill the spots in a way that maintains the racial balance at a school.
If there is no white student on the list to fill a vacancy for a white student, a black student isn’t necessarily pulled from the list to fill the seat, Fields said.
“Of course we can’t assign black students to magnet schools without violating federal law if we have to go above the 55 percent racial balance,” Fields said. “At that point, we have to have a nonblack student to register in order for us to put a black student in - to keep the balance.”
Askew called the magnet school waiting lists a dirty secret at a meeting in which he urged the state Board of Education to expand the enrollment cap for the Lisa Academy charter school in west Little Rock.
“I think it is ironic and sad that the settlement of the school case that was supposed to benefit black children in Little Rock has resulted in black children not being able to sit in empty seats in magnet schools in Little Rock,” Askew said last week.
“Charter schools have no race-based limitations on who can enroll, he added.
The magnet schools were established in 1987-88 as part of the Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit.
The schools - which had a total enrollment of 3,566 this year, down from a high of 3,932 in 2006 - were designed to attract a diverse student body to schools that would otherwise be difficult to desegregate because their locations are distant from predominantly white neighborhoods or predominantly black neighborhoods.
Five of the six schools are in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Each of the six schools is open to black and white students from the North Little Rock and Pulaski County Special school districts, as well as from Little Rock.
Askew told the state Education Board that there were nearly 3,000 black students on the magnet school waiting list based on an Oct. 1, 2009, exhibit in the Little Rock School District’s ongoing federal court challenge to the state approved charter schools in Pulaski County. According to that same exhibit, the district had 287 vacant seats at the schools, including 101 vacant seats at Booker, 100 more at Carver and 65 at Parkview.
The more recent 2012-13 waiting lists vary for the individual schools.
Booker, for example, has 167 black students and 14 white or other race students on its waiting list for next year. Gibbs has 518 black and 149 white pupils on its list. At the middle-school level, Mann has a waiting list of 1,271 black and 155 white pupils. Parkview has 2,110 black students and 244 white students on its lists.
At Mann and Parkview, students can apply for arts programs or for science programs or both. And so there are separate waiting lists for programs within a school. A student can apply for a science program slot and an orchestra slot at Parkview and, as a result, be counted twice in the overall waiting-list totals.
Donna Creer, executive director of the federal court created Magnet Review Committee, said the magnet school waiting lists are partly a reflection of the Little Rock district’s overall racial makeup, which was 67 percent black this year.
Creer also said families of black students, who often live in the magnet-school neighborhoods, are more likely than white families to apply for seats in several magnet schools. That results in those children being counted several times on the waiting lists and artificially enlarging the reported disparity.
She said she and representatives of all three school districts meet each summer to fill school vacancies, taking into account each school district’s allotment of seats in the six schools as well the racial ratio requirements.
Creer said there is nothing secretive about the student assignment process.
“People need to understand that the waiting lists are created when there are more students who apply for a seat than we have seats,” Creer said.
“The lists are computer generated. It’s a software program that is used across the country. It picks students from among those who apply. Those who are not part of the first selection are numerically ordered on a waiting list. That’s part of the program.”
“Those of us who know, know the magnet schools have value,” Creer also said, adding that representatives of the black students who are known as the Joshua intervenors in the now 30-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation lawsuit appear satisfied with the magnet-school system.
Joy Springer, who represents the Joshua intervenors on the Magnet Review Committee, said Friday that she continues to ask questions about the magnet schools and the waiting lists and the effect of the charter schools on magnet-school enrollments.
“I think magnet schools have value,” Springer said, adding that she continues to ask for additional information about the issue. “Some better things can take place. I don’t think there is anything that is perfect.”