Emerson Botts is full energy in the morning. Skipping down the sidewalk on the three-block walk to her school, she tells her mom how sad she is that the school year is ending.
Emerson enjoyed first grade. Near her Highland Park elementary school, she says she loved having so many friends and raves about field trips and her teachers.
“Whenever someone sees me walking around that’s from my school they always recognize me,” she says.
But the 7-year-old said she misses her kindergarten teacher, who was transferred to another school this year due to declining enrollment.
Emerson’s mom, Shannon Botts, is one of a group of parents working to promote the school, Fulton preK-5, to other parents in the hopes that enrollment will grow enough that teachers won’t have to leave.
Botts says while she's pleased with the school and the education Emerson is receiving, Fulton wasn’t her first choice. And she's not alone. Many of her friends in the neighborhood were reluctant to consider the school for their children.
Applying to elementary school
Two years ago before Emerson started kindgergarten, Botts and her husband toured a half-dozen schools - both public and private. They wanted a diverse school, unlike the nearly-all-white preschool her African-American daughter attended.
“She had that experience in preschool and came out of it not necessarily liking her hair or her skin,” she said. "So I kind of wanted to find something that would make her feel a little more comfortable."
Botts applied to two magnet schools, public schools operated by the district that specialize in a subject area like science, arts or language. In Pittsburgh, magnets are an increasingly popular form of school choice. But, Emerson wasn’t selected through a lottery system for either and was placed on long waiting lists. It was only when Botts called to check on her application status that Pittsburgh Public Schools district staff recommended she consider Fulton.
“It just wasn’t even on my radar,” she said. “I kind of followed, unfortunately, followed the pack to the popular schools and really only looked at those ones.”
When Botts toured Fulton she was so impressed with the school’s principal and teachers that she enrolled Emerson in kindergarten there.
The school is a partial magnet, meaning it offers a specialized curriculum, French immersion courses, for the students selected in the lottery. All students are eligible to apply for that program regardless of where they live in the city. Fulton is also a neighborhood school that draws students from the surrounding area.
Less than a mile from Fulton sits the popular arts magnet school, Dilworth k-5. Both schools have similar demographics and standardized test scores. About 81 percent of students at Fulton are African-American and 9 percent are white compared to Dillworth where the breakdown is 64 percent and 25 percent, respectively. Dilworth has about 100 more students.
Both have also been ranked in the top 25 percent of schools statewide for academic growth.
While Fulton sometimes struggles to fill seats, Dilworth has a waiting list sometimes 40-names long.
Parents are often left to do the legwork when researching schools.
Like Botts, parent Amanda Gillespie wanted to send her kids to a diverse school within the city. She said she started thinking about schools for her daughter early when she was still pregnant.
“I'm a researcher, so I started creating all these spreadsheets with columns about all the different schools and who I had talked to,” she said. “And it got intense.”
Even though Fulton was just blocks from her home, it wasn’t on her spreadsheet because she'd never heard of it. After touring the arts magnet, Dilworth, she was sold. The school's principal and sense of community impressed her. Her daughter Mathilda was selected to attend Dillworth and while they’re both happy with the school, Gillespie said having so many choices made the process overwhelming.
Gillespie says the Pittsburgh Public Schools website was difficult to navigate. In lieu of easily-accessible ways to compare schools, she, like many parents, relied on word of mouth.
The draw for parents in sending their children to magnet schools is academically warranted. Most within the district outperform neighborhood schools in standardized testing.
But Ebony Latham, project manager in the Magnet Office, which runs the lottery system, says magnets aren't the right fit for every student and are meant to provide alternative options.
“I would hope that families are exploring interests of their children and not avoiding neighborhood schools," she said. "I think our district, as a whole, is moving in a positive direction and that is the message I try to get out to families."
The advice she always gives to families going through the decision process is to simply tour schools.
“You have to actually see if the school will be a good fit for your child,” she said.
The definition of a "good fit" has changed for families since magnets were first created during the Civil Rights era.
They were created to make diverse schools, exactly what Gillespie and Botts were looking for.
Until 2010, admission to most magnets was determined by race as a way to get black students into mostly-white schools. Parents looking for a way out of poor-performing, under-resourced schools stood in long lines to get their kids in magnets.
A Supreme Court decision then determined that race could not be a factor in magnet acceptance. The district had to create a lottery system giving weights for things like sibling preference, eligibility for free and reduced lunch, and living within the geographic region.
Because so many parents rely on word of mouth, Botts and other parents in the Fulton Parent Teacher Organization are trying to deliver their message in person. They're taking steps to make school more accessible to the community. In the spring they organized an event with local classical musicians who helped students with original compositions. They then performed them at a concert open to the public.
The PTO is also applying for grants to commission public art pieces on school property to make it a more welcoming space.
So far, Fulton principal Karen Arnold says the parent’s efforts are working. She’s been getting more tour requests.
“I’ve had a lot of second people who’ve been waitlisted choose to come to Fulton and because I’ve either had slots still open and will accept them or they’ve heard good things and they wanted to come in,” she said.
Botts son Elijah, will start kindergarten at Fulton in the fall. About 10 of his classmates are from families who heard about the school through the PTO.