Editor’s Note: This is part of a Lagniappe series examining the effects of the Birdie Mae Davis case on the Mobile County Public School System and its racial makeup, 50 years after it was argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.
Lindsey Norris knew private school wasn’t an option for her daughter. So, when the family began looking at schools, Mobile County Public School System (MCPSS) was going to be the only option.
For Norris, magnet schools became the top choice, but the online application process left her feeling less than comfortable about the prospects.
“I was pretty nervous,” she said. “For us, private school wasn’t an option. I went to private school and for personal reasons I had decided it wasn’t the best option.”
Instead, Norris and her family were hoping for admission into Old Shell Road Elementary School, where her eldest daughter enjoyed a curriculum including singing, dancing and the arts.
“It was really, really cool,” Norris said. “We thought she would thrive there.”
Norris said she felt nervous because a rejection would mean possibly sending her daughter to a school that was not among the best in the city.
“It was on the low end of the scale in the rankings,” she said.
While Norris’ daughter did not get into the Old Shell program in pre-kindergarten, she did get accepted to the school as a kindergartener and has now started her first-grade year.
The rigor of the school and the demands placed on families to stay in the program has been an “adjustment,” Norris said. She admits the adjustment was a bit tougher because she spent a portion of the time as a single parent.
“There was a lot of dotting I’s and crossing T’s,” she said. “She’s getting an excellent education in all subjects and in lifelong learning.”
MCPSS set up magnet schools as part of a court settlement related to the Birdie Mae Davis lawsuit. The schools now offer parents with or without the possible means, an alternative to private schools and Catholic schools in the area.
The magnet elementary schools in Mobile County include Old Shell Road, Eichold-Mertz Magnet School and Council Traditional School. The middle schools include Denton Magnet School, Clark-Shaw Magnet School for Math, Science and Technology, Dunbar Creative and Performing Arts Magnet School, and Phillips Preparatory School. Starting next school year, Barton Academy for Advanced World Studies will also be an option for students in grades six through nine, according to the MCPSS website.
Students in magnet schools are chosen through a lottery system after parents apply, MCPSS spokesperson Rena Phillips said. Parents and students pick their top three schools as part of the application process. This year’s application window opens Nov. 2 and closes Dec. 4. After Dec. 4, the system does a completely random, computer-generated drawing to determine which students will attend which schools, Phillips said.
“A lot of parents seek out magnet schools for specialty programs,” she said. “Most people who get in are very happy.”
Vanessa Cochran also has a first-grader at Old Shell Road Elementary. In her case, they started looking at schools when her daughter was 3 or 4 years old.
“We think public schools are really important,” Cochran said. “We toured Leinkauf [Elementary School] and all the magnet schools.”
Cochran’s biggest issue with Leinkauf, she said, was the school’s design, which features several doors to the outside. Cochran said she felt it was a safety concern.
“The way it’s set up, the classrooms face an outside wall and there are exterior doors,” she said. “Plus, you have to cross the street to get from building to building.”
An appealing aspect of the magnet schools for Cochran was the program’s ability to weed out more disruptive students.
“All students there are trying to learn without disruption,” she said. “It leads to a higher quality education.”
Another important factor was the diversity of magnet schools in the area, Cochran said. She added she didn’t want her daughter attending school in an “all-White” environment.
Like Norris, Cochran was attracted to Old Shell Road’s arts programs. Also like Norris, Cochran’s daughter was not accepted at first.
When she found out her daughter had not been accepted, Cochran pivoted and received a transfer that allowed her daughter to attend Mary B. Austin Elementary School. However, two weeks before her daughter was to attend kindergarten, a space opened at Old Shell Road.
“All I kind of remember is rushing to buy school supplies,” Cohran said.
Jesse McDaniel is the father of a first-grader and a pre-kindergartener at Council. Before either daughter was to attend school, McDaniel said the application date was something he and his wife circled on the calendar.
“We made ourselves familiar with the different magnet school programs,” he said. “It was a no-brainer.”
McDaniel said his wife was the product of magnet schools in Montgomery and they knew firsthand how successful they could be at educating children.
“We were looking for rigor,” he said.
While McDaniel said the family had “looked forward” to applying, he said the process produced “butterflies” in their stomachs.
“We would have been very disappointed if it didn’t work out,” he said. “We were a little nervous. Our plan B was going to be public school, but we didn’t know what public school it would be.”
The McDaniel family chose Council because they lived within two miles of it, but also because of the International Baccalaureate program.
“We wanted our children to have a strong general education,” he said.
Like Cochran, McDaniel said the diversity of the magnet schools was a factor in the decision.
“We live in a diverse world,” McDaniel said. “We want our children to grow up with an understanding of diversity.”
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