At what promises to be a lengthy workshop meeting today, the Hernando County School Board will debate, among other thorny topics, whether the siblings of students who are accepted at magnet schools can piggyback on their enrollment. Board members should agree to adopt a policy that completely eliminates the arbitrary practice of sibling preference.
Admission to magnet schools is based primarily on students' portfolios and aptitude, or on a lottery system. Up until 2005, parents who had one student accepted at a magnet school also could enroll all his or her brothers and sisters. As it turned out, that affected so many students that the board tweaked the policy in 2005 to limit preference to siblings who attended the school at the same time, and not include so-called legacies.
Even with that narrowed policy, the number of family based admissions at the county's three magnet schools is significant. According to a Times story Wednesday, almost half of the children who will be accepted at Challenger K-8 this year are siblings; at Chocachatti Elementary that number is 25 percent, and at Nature Coast Technical High School, about one-fifth are siblings.
This policy is well-intentioned, but it is inconsistent with the concept of magnet schools to base enrollment on relations rather than merit or a student's academic interests. The same goes for a lottery system, although that practice, which also is very popular with parents, has intrinsic value in that it promotes a more socio-economically diverse student population.
The School Board has adopted an attendance policy that ignores a student's geographic proximity to magnet schools, saying it had no intent to fill the school with students who have not demonstrated an academic propensity or express desire to attend. That stance will have an effect on the school district's task of redrawing attendance zones, which also is on today's agenda. We disagree with the board's decision to not allow neighborhood kids into magnet schools. But it only follows that eliminating the sibling preference policy would be in sync with that philosophy.
It will be necessary to establish a procedure for families with truly extenuating circumstances to ask for a waiver to a policy that denies sibling preference. But exceptions should be granted by the superintendent or board, not left to principals.
Board member John Sweeney summed it up succinctly when discussing this issue in April:
"To have students admitted based on what their siblings are good at - it doesn't really sound like a magnet concept."
Sweeney is right, and the board should echo his thought on this topic.