A public school that turns away nearly two-thirds of the students who apply for its magnet program shouldn't be construed as a model worth emulating. Greater accessibility should be one of the key issues considered by the Hernando School Board over the next several weeks as it begins pondering alterations to its magnet schools and theme programs.
Board members indicated Tuesday a willingness to open up enrollment at its magnet high school, Nature Coast Technical, to include students from the surrounding neighborhoods beginning in fall 2012. A final vote is scheduled for Nov. 1.
However, much more difficult and emotional decisions await the board as it considers suggestions from an advisory committee on reshaping admission to its other two magnet schools, Challenger K-8 and Chocachatti Elementary, for 2013. The available slots for new magnet students — less than 180 at each school for the start of the 2011 school year — are filled by picking 70 percent of the children based on their portfolio and 30 percent on a lottery.
The selection process, however, is irrelevant when achievement is measured. Students selected via lottery perform just as well on standardized tests as children picked because of the strength of their portfolios, administrators said.
So, instead of focusing on who gets in and how, the board should turn its attention to who isn't invited. At Chocachatti, which features performing arts and MicroSociety programs, 299 children applied for 176 openings, leaving 122 students, or 41 percent of the applicants, on a waiting list. The numbers are worse at Challenger's science and mathematics program. For the 2011 school year, nearly 300 children were put on a waiting list after failing to gain one of the 178 open slots. Turning away 62 percent of the applicants is not a measure of a school's success. It is an indication that the district is unable to meet demand for services.
It has sparked conversations about favoritism, elitism and economic bigotry that reflects poorly on a district charged with serving all students, not just the 5-year-olds with sparkling portfolios.
"All the phone calls I have received have made me feel like I'm back in Mississippi in the 1950s,'' said board member Cynthia Moore who fought off tears as she relayed conversations from constituents suggesting children in rental housing can't pass muster.
The commitment from magnet school parents is laudable. Their volunteerism and willingness to be involved is one of the strengths of Challenger and Chocachatti. They have vested interests and the district said any changes to the attendance rules won't affect current students.
But continuing to base 70 percent of the admittance on portfolios is counter-productive. It eliminates the district from seeking grant money to help offset the magnet program costs — listed at approximately $600,000 in the current budget year — and raises suspicions — voiced publicly by Moore — that the application is more reflective of parental efforts, not the children's.
Staying with the status quo is unacceptable when only 38 percent of the applicants are admitted. The Hernando School District needs a long-term vision for its magnet programs that should entail more lottery selections and additional programs at other schools that could include gender, fundamental or elementary IB.
That will give families greater options, and, most importantly, greater opportunities for all to participate.