Are Magnet Schools Creating Roadblocks for Asian Americans?

The School District of Philadelphia recently announced a sweeping revision of the admission policies for the city’s magnet schools in order to provide more equitable diversity among the student population. The move is intended to increase the diversity of previously underrepresented students, such as black and Latino students, and neighborhoods in parts of the city, but the changes have been met with mixed reviews by residents and elected officials.

Developed in the late 1960s, magnet schools were initially created to assist large urban school systems with further academic desegregation. The U.S. Department of Education reports that more than half of large urban school systems operate magnet schools, whereas only 10 percent of suburban districts have magnet programs.

In contrast to private and charter schools, magnet schools are part of the local public school system, operating under the same school board and administration but outside the determined local school zones. In the American public education system, students typically attend the school within the district they reside. Students who enroll in magnet schools are able to do so by choice rather than attend the schools in neighborhoods where they live.

Magnet schools, which generally encompass elementary through high school, differ by curriculum as well, often involving hands-on methods of learning. Students are taught a range of subjects aligned with local and state educational standards, but the lessons are taught within the magnet school’s theme, such as STEM: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Regardless of academic theme, all magnet schools share the same distinguishing characteristics of providing a unique and distinctive curriculum, hands-on and performance-based method of instruction, a student body representative of multiple neighborhood zones, and student diversity as an explicit purpose. It was in a reassessment of the diversity of the student population and neighborhood representation in its magnet schools that led to the admission policy changes in the magnet schools of the Philadelphia School District.

The school system in October announced a complete overhaul of their magnet school admission process in an effort to increase diversity in the top schools. The district reported enrollment has historically had a disproportionally higher number of white and Asian American students.

Traditionally, the school admissions system relied heavily on the decision of school principals, and in some cases, school-based communities. This process will be abolished under the new policy, and students will be selected through a lottery-based system, giving preference to students from historically underrepresented zip codes within the city.

What Are the New Changes?

In the past, students were required to take standardized tests, interview with principals and school officials, and provide certified letters of recommendation. Historically speaking, test score cutoffs have admitted a larger number of white and Asian American students at the city’s top magnet schools, administrators said.

Under the new policy, students will be required to submit writing samples that will be evaluated electronically by computerized systems, and those who qualify will automatically be submitted to the lottery. Officials touted the process as fair and equitable, removing any possibility of human biases.

While the move is intended to bring more race equality to the city’s top-ranking schools, it has been met with criticism, particularly from families of currently enrolled students, many of whom have attended for multiple years. Prior admittance required academic achievements, higher test scores, and maintaining certain grade point averages in order to remain enrolled in the magnet schools.

What Are the Complaints?

Many argue that attending selective schools should be based on academic performance and not by zip code, with parents arguing that students have been raised and educated on the belief that hard work and academic successes are rewarded with admittance. The new policy, they complain, tosses those beliefs and the student’s hard work aside, selecting enrollment by the equivalent of randomly drawing names out of a hat.

The new policy will likely be troublesome for Asian American students. White and Asian American students have made up the largest student demographic in Philadelphia’s magnet schools. Historically, Asian Americans make up the largest ethnic groups in the top magnet high schools. While students of any race could lose their enrollment in the magnet school due to the lottery and emphasis on underrepresented zip codes, the Asian American students may fare far worse than others.

A large portion of the white student population in the top tier magnet schools come from privileged backgrounds and neighborhoods and from socially and politically connected families with the ability to enroll their children in other prestigious schools. Many of the Asian American students, however, do not.

One of the fastest growing populations in Philadelphia, Asian families are often recently immigrated to the United States. The majority of Asian American magnet school students are from first-generation families whose parents are working class and do not speak English with limited education options without magnet schools. These families depend on public magnet schools to allow their children the opportunities to achieve academic heights, pursue college educations, and launch successful careers that most of the parents themselves do not possess.

Many Asian families migrate to the United States specifically to seek better education, work, and life opportunities for their children. They work hard, often in menial jobs, to ensure their children are afforded every opportunity they may not have had in their home country. The new policy could have a devastating effect for many Asian American families.

Despite much criticism and concern from families, parents, students, and even the Philadelphia City Council, the school system announced in December that it intends to keep the policy and will review its efficacy on an annual basis.

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