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Will Indianapolis change its magnet admission rules to keep siblings together?

Indianapolis Public Schools students learn at CFI 27.
Indianapolis Public Schools students learn at CFI 27.
Alan Petersime

With two daughters enrolled, Jennifer Anderson and her husband knew they loved the community at School 27. But when it came time to enroll the couple’s youngest daughter in kindergarten, they got painful news: She had not won a seat in the first enrollment lottery because district policy prioritized other students.

“It’s incredibly important to my husband and I that all of our children attend the same school,” Anderson told the Indianapolis Public Schools Board last week as she pled for them to make an exception for her daughter. “I refuse to break the hearts of my children due to misplaced priorities.”

Anderson was among a handful of parents whose children had not won seats at the highly sought after Center for Inquiry schools their siblings attended. But now, the board is considering changing its rules to give siblings a better chance at winning seats.

The situation reflects a broader challenge facing Indianapolis’ largest school district. In recent years, the district has replicated popular programs and made them more accessible for children from low-income families. But nearly every move to expand access to sought-after schools has been met with resistance from families who are worried about how the change might affect their children.

Indianapolis Public Schools has not explicitly modified its magnet admission rules this year. But this is the first year of Enroll Indy, a new common enrollment system that is changing the process for families, making admissions rules clearer, and ensuring they are applied consistently.

As cities across the country move to common enrollment, they encounter similar issues, said Betheny Gross, a researcher with the Center for Reinventing Public Education. Parents who knew how to play by the rules of the previous system can feel like they are losing control, she said.

“They can’t walk into the school and really give a convincing case to the principal and get their kid into the school,” she said. “Parents, for all good reasons, are very protective of their children.”

Common enrollment systems, which allow students to apply for district and charter schools in a single location, have been embraced in several cities in recent years, including New Orleans, Denver and Washington, D.C. Enroll Indy, which will run three lotteries throughout the year, sent parents results from the first application cycle Feb. 15.

The problem facing Indianapolis Public Schools now is complaints from families because eight children who live in the district did not win seats at the schools their siblings attend. When children already have a sibling enrolled at a magnet school, they have a leg up in the admission lottery. But students who are zoned to attend a particular campus also get priority, and they are admitted before siblings.

The Andersons’ daughter did not win a spot at School 27 because although she has siblings at the school, the family does not live in the right zone, Jennifer Anderson said.

Those zones exist because when the district has several schools offering the same program, such as Montessori or the Centers for Inquiry, it divides the map into zones. If families want to attend one of those schools, the district provides transportation only to the campus in their zone, said Patrick Herrel, enrollment director for the district.

Having different enrollment areas for schools offering the same program helps balance the number of children eligible for each school and reduce transportation costs, Herrel said. The rules give priority to families in the zones because the district does not provide busing to families outside the zones.

If families get priority but not transportation, Herrel said, “we are essentially pretending to give access to families when in fact only some of those families will be able to take advantage of it.”

A family’s zone could change during the course of their children’s education, however, if they move or the district redraws the boundaries. The results can seem unfair to families who face the prospect that their children may not be admitted to a school their sibling attends. And at least two members of the school board seemed to agree with their argument.

During a meeting Thursday, board member Kelly Bentley apologized to families in the community for failing to ensure that the sibling preference was given more weight when the board reviewed the admission rules.

“We should never, ever split families up,” she added. “I can’t think of anything more inequitable than splitting families up.”

One way of solving the challenge would be providing transportation to families who are no longer in the same zone as their school. But busing students from across the district could come at a substantial cost.

Because of past board decisions, the district is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars busing students from across the district. Next year, it will also offer busing to some students who live out of the zone for School 60, a decision the board made in the face of parent uproar over the new boundaries.

The steep price tag of busing students to different magnet schools is especially significant for the district now because it is in the midst of appealing to taxpayers for more money. In order to reduce the amount it is seeking, the administration said it would need to curtail plans to expand transportation.

“My recommendation to commissioners is to take some time and give this some thought,” said Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. “There are tremendous financial implications should we go that route.”

In the long term, it’s likely that Indianapolis’ largest school district will continue to encounter resistance from families until there are more seats available in the most sought-after schools, said Gross, the common enrollment researcher.

“It comes down to supply,” she said. “When we just don’t have enough seats in the places that kids want to go to, you are going to always end up with these disappointments.”

The aim of Enroll Indy, the new common enrollment system, is to make sure families know what school options exist and how to enroll in them, said founder Caitlin Hannon. If they succeed, they will reach families who were not previously applying to the most popular schools — or were missing the deadline. But as more parents apply for schools that are already filling up, others will have a harder time gaining admission, she said.

“If 1,000 more families know about a popular school and apply, haven’t we been successful, because they are applying for a seat that they didn’t even know they could have or existed?” she said.

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