Thousands in St. Louis wait to attend magnet schools

Thursday, April 26, 2007

ST. LOUIS (AP) -- A quota system designed to help integrate St. Louis public schools is keeping thousands of students from open spots at sought-after magnet schools, some school officials said.

While the struggling district is so beset by problems that the state plans a takeover in two months, thousands of students -- the majority of them black -- can't take advantage of educational opportunities they seek.

About 11,000 students attend the city's 24 magnet schools, which have specialized programs in areas like the arts, math and science. District officials said 2,700 students were on a waiting list this year -- even as the city's magnet schools had roughly 3,000 open spots.

At issue is a quota system in place since a 1999 desegregation settlement agreement. The quota requires the city's magnet programs to be made up of roughly 60 percent black students.

However, about 80 percent of the district's students are now black. As a result, many of the magnet schools would violate the required racial balance if they take on additional black students.

The reverse is true for the city's gifted programs, which have waiting lists of white students, school officials said.

"We have enough seats available and enough interest that we should be able to fill these schools," said Louis Kruger, who oversees the school district's office that places students in magnet schools.

Depending on who you talk to, the district is either denying a good number of black students access to some of its best opportunities, or needs to fight harder to draw in white, Asian, Hispanic or other students to integrate and maintain a racial balance important to those opportunities in the first place.

"It is useful to maintain some modicum of desegregation," said Bill Taylor, a lawyer for the St. Louis branch of the NAACP and a class of children in a desegregation case involving the city schools. He said the district needs to do much more to attract white students and focus on improving education overall, rather than attacking provisions aimed at racially balancing magnet schools.

Taylor said schools well-represented by more than one race are more successful at drawing good resources and teachers.

The district has not recently compared academic performance of magnet schools against the others, spokesman Tony Sanders said. However, St. Louis' magnets typically perform better academically than most neighborhood schools, school officials said.

Steve Carroll, a lobbyist for the district, said he thinks if more seats at high-performing magnet schools could be filled, it could go a long way toward helping the district restore its accreditation.

The state Board of Education decided last month to drop the district's accreditation and to let a three-member board begin overseeing the roughly 32,000-student district on June 15. The decision follows years of poor academic performance and budget problems in the district, the state's largest.

Carroll said perhaps the parties from the desegregation settlement agreement could come together to talk about ways to get more kids into the St. Louis magnet schools. He said the goal of the racial balance percentages is admirable, but doesn't reflect the current district.

"There's the wish list," he said, "and then there's the reality."

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