Cincinnati's magnet school campouts: What do they really mean?

Like the swallows returning to Capistrano or the endless lines at Best Buy on Black Friday, there is an annual gathering in Cincinnati that compels folks to camp out for days on end. They leave most of life behind in pursuit of a single goal: a coveted spot in a magnet school.

The campers are parents of incoming Kindergarten students who are convinced that the desired magnet school is the right place for their children. This year, the tents began popping up at the first school nearly two weeks before the opening of the lottery. The parents should be commended for their commitment and dedication.

But what does this annual ritual really signify?

Does it mean that Cincinnati schools are so bad that families will do anything for a better option? Probably not. These are families trying to attend a handful of high-quality magnet schools. The quality and desirability of these schools is a positive development for Cincinnati Public Schools. With over 15,000 students in district schools that received a D or F rating on their performance-index scores last year, the real question is this: Why there aren’t more schools like these? A long line for scarce seats is not a new development in Cincinnati.

Does it mean that Cincinnati’s lottery system is broken? Probably. A two-week campout in November in Southern Ohio seems more like the set up for a reality-competition show than for quality education outcomes. And while Cincinnati Public Schools neither condones nor discourages the campouts and has tried to modify the lottery process to try and obviate the need for them, 70 percent of the seats in the most sought-after schools are still filled on a first-come, first-served basis. It has reached the point where only the hardy can get seats in these schools. Check out this story by a dad camping at Fairview-Clifton German Language School. There is a touching story in the piece about a single mom who could not be away from work for two weeks to secure her spot without losing her job. Current Fairview families, their spots secured by having successfully navigated this rite of passage, worked to create a line-sitting schedule for the single mom. It seems unlikely that all single parents, or parents with less flexible jobs, could gain similar treatment.

Does it mean that good schools are good just because of strong parental involvement? The jury is likely still out on that. But the father profiled in the article above also discusses the “community” of campers, the children of some of whom will—hopefully—become his child’s classmates next fall. It’s hard to believe that this level of dedication and commitment wouldn’t have a positive effect on the learning environment. Of course, camping out to get your child into a good school is one thing; making sure that he or she has every support at home to make the most of that opportunity is quite another. The alchemy that goes into creating and maintaining a high-performing school is mysterious to say the least. Teachers, principals, school culture, parents, students, expectations, and discipline—all of these and more play a part. Success begets success, but motivated parents cannot be counted out of the equation.

Unfortunately, when logistics trump motivation, good kids with dedicated parents can lose out on a life-changing opportunity. And that is the true takeaway here.

All school options should be high-quality options. They should be open to all and easy for parents to access – parents with jobs, parents with limited English proficiency, parents with kids of all types. They should have staff members who set high expectations and give students everything they need to meet or exceed those expectations. They should be transparent, accountable, innovative, and invested in their communities.

But until that occurs, there will always be parents willing to do whatever it takes—including camping out during rain and cold and wind—to find the best schools for their children.

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