Stamford has seven magnet schools that provide special instruction in certain focus areas, attract a diverse student body, and provide some of the best educational programs the city has to offer.
Each year, hundreds of parents visit the magnet schools, rank their choices, fill out enrollment forms, submit them on deadline, then wait months to find out whether their applications have been accepted, and their best hopes for their children’s educations realized.
Most are disappointed.
It’s because admission is usually by lottery, and your child doesn’t get a seat if your number doesn’t come up. Each magnet school has a long list of parents left waiting for a seat to open.
So Board of Education member Jackie Pioli objected when she learned that the superintendent’s office wants to amend the regulations that govern admission to magnet schools.
Superintendent Tamu Lucero has asked the board to approve a change that would prioritize the children of teachers and administrators who work at magnet schools over the children of residents who live just outside the attendance zone of some magnet schools.
“It’s not fair to the community. Magnets were built to balance enrollment at our schools,” Pioli said. “Staff who want their children to go to a magnet school should fill out the lottery form like everyone else. The purpose of magnet schools is to help the community, but we are breaking the policy to help staff.”
Under existing rules, the order of admission is:
- First – students who live in the attendance area of a zoned magnet school.
- Second – students with siblings attending a magnet school.
- Third – students who live just outside a magnet school attendance zone.
- Fourth – students who attend non-magnet schools known to over-enroll and so are targeted for recruitment to a magnet school.
- Fifth – all other applicants.
The existing policy states that magnet-school teachers may enroll their children as space is available. All other teachers who live in Stamford may apply through the lottery. Teachers who do not work in a magnet school and do not live in Stamford may apply only to the magnet schools that are open to students from districts outside Stamford – Strawberry Hill and Rogers International elementary schools, and the Academy of Information Technology & Engineering high school.
The change, if approved by the school board, will flip things around. Lucero is proposing a new order of admission:
- First – students with siblings attending a magnet school.
- Second – students who live in the attendance area of a zoned magnet school.
- Third – students whose parents are teachers or administrators working at a magnet school.
- Fourth – students who live just outside a magnet school attendance zone.
- Fifth – students who attend non-magnet schools known to over-enroll and so are targeted for recruitment to a magnet school.
- Sixth – all other applicants.
Allowing teachers to enroll their children where they work is supposed to be done as a professional courtesy “only if there is room,” Pioli said.
The change will allow it as of right.
“Kids who have teachers as parents should not benefit more,” Pioli said. “Everyone should be the same.”
A policy ‘knowingly’ ignored
The situation is complex, Pioli said, because the policy exists on paper, but not in practice.
“We’ve been knowingly breaking it for a long time,” she said.
Lucero said the same during the May 9 meeting of the school board’s Policy Committee.
“For clear transparency … this is our current practice. It just needs to be put into policy,” Lucero said. “We are … allowing staff members’ kids into the schools and have been since I came to the district” 10 years ago.
Lori Rhodes, associate superintendent for school development, explained the reason to the committee.
“The motivation is creating community in Stamford and staff retention … we talk every month about the need for teachers,” Rhodes said. “Teachers have to live so far away from where they work, and they are less invested in clubs and afterschool activities because they can’t do it.”
If teachers had to apply for magnet school admission using the lottery, “there would never be any room” in most cases “because the wait list is so long,” Rhodes said. “If teachers who work at the school were at the end of the line, they would be at the end of the entire wait list.”
The policy change would “move children of teachers up to number three … so they’re able to attend,” Rhodes said.
School board member Lisa Butler said some parents move to neighborhoods that are “preference zones” for the highest-performing magnet schools, such as Rogers International and Strawberry Hill, to increase their chances of getting their children in.
Butler asked if the administration could flip the order of the proposed changes “so people who moved to a preference zone have priority above teachers’ children.”
That won’t work, Lucero said.
“The wait list for preference zone families is too long,” Lucero said. “No teachers’ kids would ever get in.”
A $20,000 ‘fringe benefit’
But that shouldn’t be the goal, said another board member, Josh Esses, who opposes Lucero’s change except to grandfather in teachers’ children who are already enrolled.
“I would be open to preserving this if a Stamford resident that happens to teach at a magnet school wants the professional courtesy of going to Scofield Magnet instead of Turn of River (non-magnet) middle school, but given how coveted these spots are, and that the cost is borne by Stamford taxpayers, this is a fringe benefit to the tune of $20,000 a year,” Esses said, referencing the annual per-pupil cost of educating a child in Stamford.
“I don’t think we should be giving these seats away to non-Stamford residents when there is a lot of in-Stamford demand for these seats,” Esses said. “I think we need to enforce the policy as it is.”
Teachers in non-magnet schools are given the professional courtesy of enrolling their children where they work, Lucero said, and the policy change would just extend it to magnet schools.
“It’s an attempt to equalize the policy for all teachers, instead of saying, if you happen to be at a non-magnet school your child can come from out of district, but if you’re at a magnet school you would not be able to come from out of district,” Lucero said.
About 60 courtesies a year
Stamford has 13 elementary schools, and five have magnet programs. Hart, Toquam and Westover are zoned magnet schools that have assigned attendance areas and draw students from across the city.
The remaining two elementaries, Rogers International and Strawberry Hill, are newer schools built partly with state funding, so 25 percent of their student populations must come from districts outside Stamford. They are top-performing schools with preferred areas of attendance – the category that would get bumped by the children of teachers in the proposed new order of admission.
The city has five middle schools and one, Scofield in North Stamford, has a magnet program. Among the three high schools, one, AITE, has an inter-district magnet program.
The number of classroom seats approved as professional courtesies, bypassing the lottery – roughly 60 a year – is small compared with student populations, according to school district data.
It shows that, this school year, the district approved 66 magnet school placements for children of teachers or administrators, 46 of whom live in Stamford.
The largest number of children, 17, got seats at the top-performing Strawberry Hill elementary. Nine went to Northeast and seven went to Newfield, both non-magnet elementary schools, according to district data.
How is the lottery run?
Last school year there were 49 professional courtesy placements, and 31 of the educators lived in Stamford. In the 2020-21 the total was 55, with 39 Stamford residents, the data shows. And in 2019-20 the total was 64, with 40 of them Stamford residents.
Parents have questioned the lottery system since one of the original magnet programs opened in a renovated Westover elementary school nearly three decades ago.
Many of the children of the most prominent city officials somehow won the lottery for seats at Westover that year. Parents since then have raised questions about whether the lottery was bypassed for municipal employees, members of elected boards, and other people in positions of power.
Beyond that, Connecticut Department of Education enrollment data reveals illogical trends, Pioli said.
In the 2017-18 school year, for instance, there were 118 kindergarteners at Strawberry Hill Magnet, the state data shows. But when those students reached Grade 5 this year, they numbered only 91.
At AITE, the magnet high school, ninth-graders numbered 166 in 2019-20. But by the time they were in 12th grade, the class had dropped to 141 students, the data shows.
Pioli said she found other examples of shrinking classes, leaving more questions to answer.
“Why are the numbers dropping at these magnet schools when we have long waiting lists? Parents are waiting for these openings,” Pioli said. “If we are doing the lottery correctly, we would be filling those seats.”
Magnet school admission is on the agenda of the Board of Education’s June 15 Policy Committee meeting, she said.