Magnet rules may change

Starting as soon as 2011, where your family lives or how much money you make could affect your child's chances of attending a Wichita magnet school.

School leaders and residents who are studying ways to avoid one-race schools in the wake of the end of busing for integration want to make diversity a top priority of all magnet schools.

This could mean most students wouldn't be chosen at random, as they are now. Family income or address could be factored into the selection process.

The magnet school application process will remain the same for next school year. The Choices Fair, where families can learn more about magnet programs, is Jan. 12 at the Century II Exhibition Hall.

But within the next two months, school board members could start discussing how to redefine magnet schools to attract diverse student populations.

"Magnet schools should be kept a top player" as the district strives for diverse schools, board president Barbara Fuller said. "It's a drawing card."

Losing racial balance

The district's newest magnet, Mueller Aerospace and Engineering Discovery Magnet Elementary School, near Wichita State University, is the type of program school board members and administration say they're looking for.

Fourth-grader Tilar Saunders is the type of student they want to draw.

When her family moved here a year ago, Tilar attended the private Independent School because her mother, Tammy Kidd, wasn't impressed with the test scores of the Wichita district school in her neighborhood.

After some research, Kidd decided the new engineering program at Mueller would be a challenging — and less expensive— education for Tilar.

Tilar said she likes Mueller better than private school because of the engineering projects, especially a game board that lights up the correct answer, which she recently showed off at the school's open house. She also enjoys being part of the school's robotics team.

But Tilar, who is black, doesn't bring much diversity to her predominately black school, where white students were bused under the district's integration policy that ended in 2008.

From 1971 until 2008, the district assigned thousands of black students to schools with predominantly white populations, and hundreds of white students were assigned to schools with predominantly black populations.

In 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled it was unconstitutional to assign students to schools based on race. This left Wichita and school districts nationwide scrambling to dismantle strategies put in place three decades ago, when federal authorities said districts must integrate schools racially.

Almost immediately, schools in the predominantly minority parts of town became crowded, and schools where white students were bused, such as Mueller, lost their racial balance.

Twenty-one of the district's 80-plus schools are considered single-race in that they had 60 percent or more of students of one race last year, according to district data.

Magnet programs at these schools are supposed to attract a diverse student body, but since most have to accept neighborhood students first, there is limited space for students interested in the magnet program.

Diversity in policy

A committee of community members is considering the paradoxical task of how to maintain racial diversity in schools without using race as a factor.

Guiding them is Kim Burkhalter, director of equity and accountability, a position created when the busing for integration policy ended.

Suggestions made by the committee and Burkhalter could fundamentally change how magnet school students — and schools — are chosen.

"It's really to lay out a definition of magnet schools," Burkhalter said.

"It attempts to put everyone on the same page."

A draft of the policy states the purpose of magnet programs includes ensuring all students have equitable access to education, reducing "minority group isolation," and increasing diversity of racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds.

The current magnet school policy makes little mention of their purpose, and it doesn't specifically mention diversity.

At Mueller, in the central-northeast part of Wichita, which is mostly minority and low-income, about 190 of the 540 students are magnet program students. But they weren't the only ones excited about the new engineering curriculum, principal Anne Clemens said.

"The neighborhood kids came to us excited about the magnet," she said, adding that the program gives students opportunities to ride airplanes and receive mentoring from professional engineers.

The magnet program didn't attract a diverse enough pool of applicants to keep Mueller from being mostly comprised of black students, though. Clemens said that as the program continues, however, interest will grow across the district.

"All magnet schools are hoping for that — all schools want to be racially balanced," she said. "A good reflection of our district is diverse. We don't want it to go back to segregation."

For now, Mueller still has remnants of the old integration policy providing a boost in the number of white students.

Fourth-grader Taylor McGlothlin started attending Mueller in first grade as part of the old busing policy.

Her father, Robert McGlothlin, said Taylor stayed at Mueller after busing ended because she liked the school and he liked the convenient bus stops.

Taylor and her father said they welcomed the aerospace and engineering magnet program that started this year.

"It's more fun to build more projects than we used to," said Taylor, who spent the open house showing off an alarm that was set off by weight.

No immediate change

The board hasn't seen a copy of the revised magnet school policy yet. Burkhalter said she and the district's diversity consultant will present it in the next two months.

The earliest policy changes could affect magnet school or student selection is 2011, she said.

By then, Tilar would be choosing her middle school.

She said she is seriously considering engineering as a career.

"It's really fun to do this," Tilar said. "Electric and mechanical engineers _ I can't really choose. It's all building, all in the design process."