Academic Magnet High explores proposal to guarantee eligible students acceptance to improve diversity

Academic Magnet High School Spanish teacher Linda Colon teaches Spanish III students on Friday. The school is making efforts to increase its diversity. Buy this photo

Zucker Middle School eighth-grader Armani Mack is one of the brightest students in her class, but she wasn’t planning to apply to Charleston County’s top academic high school.

By the numbers

The following is a breakdown of the schools from which Academic Magnet High’s 2013-14 freshmen class attended last year.

Charleston County private schools 44

Non-Charleston County public and private schools 14

Charter schools 6

Charleston County neighborhood or magnet schools 110

The following shows the top five schools that had the most freshmen accepted into Academic Magnet High for the 2013-14 school year.

School of the Arts 25

Moultrie Middle 17

Buist Academy 14

Cario Middle 12

Laing Middle 12

Source: Academic Magnet High

Although Mack thinks she would get a better education at Academic Magnet High, she said she worried that she wouldn’t be accepted.

“I thought about it, but I was scared I wasn’t going to make it,” said Mack, who makes straight A’s and takes honors classes.

The intimidation factor among prospective students is perhaps one of the reasons the highly selective school has seen a drop in its students’ racial diversity. Just 3 percent of the school’s nearly 620 students are black this year, compared with the county average of 43 percent. The school’s total percentage of minority students, which means anyone who isn’t white, is 15 percent.

School leaders have some ideas about how they can increase the number of minority students while maintaining their high standards. One of their suggestions is to guarantee the top two students from each of the county’s public middle schools acceptance if they meet the school’s admissions criteria. Middle school students still could opt to enroll elsewhere.

“Our mission statement asks that we prepare our students to be global citizens, and part of the globe is the diversity of the Charleston community,” said Principal Judith Peterson. “I would like our students to spend four years in a truly multicultural environment. Our environment is diverse in terms of thinking and in perspective and in lots of ways, but it doesn’t look diverse if someone walks into our school.”

Peterson plans to make that and other proposals to Superintendent Nancy McGinley this week, and they will decide whether any of those should go to the county school board for further consideration.

Guaranteed spots


The latest proposal for Academic Magnet High is modeled after the admission system used by the University of Texas. Texas students who are at the top 10 percent of their high school class are guaranteed admission, and the remaining spots are filled by applicants who are rated on a number of factors, including race and ethnicity.

A white applicant who was denied admission in 2008 filed a lawsuit against the school, saying she was discriminated against because of her race. The case made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in June ordered an appeals court to reconsider the case, and that colleges must show that race-neutral alternatives aren’t adequate before using race in admissions decisions.

After reading about the case years ago, Peterson wondered whether there were a way to use the same premise at Academic Magnet.

The highly selective North Charleston school’s admissions process scores students’ applications on a 15-point rubric. It takes into account a number of factors, such as grades, scores on the ACT Explore tests, a writing sample and teacher recommendations. The school ranks students’ scores from highest to lowest, and the top 160 scores would be accepted.

The new plan would be a departure from that method because the top two students at each middle school would be considered eligible for the school if they scored at least a 13 on the 15-point scale. Peterson said a student who scores at that level can be academically successful at the school, and students who scored above 13 were on its waiting list. A score of 13 has been historically reliable over time, she said.

The spaces allotted for the top middle school students would be in addition to the 160 students who are accepted annually, Peterson said. About 400 students applied to the school last year.

Up to 28 additional students could be accepted each year, which means the roughly 600-student school could grow by up to 112 students. Peterson said the school could accommodate those additional students, but it would have ramifications, such as not being able to fit the entire school in the theater or cafeteria, and having some teachers who would lack a permanent classroom.

Those are issues Peterson said she would like to think through and discuss further with McGinley before any plan becomes a reality.

Victim of success?


Academic Magnet High’s diversity has lessened during the past several years, and officials point in part to the school’s success.

The school has been ranked among the top schools in the country by U.S. News & World Report and Newsweek magazines, and that notoriety has attracted more applicants than in the past. The school receives and accepts more applications from private school students, and many children live in Mount Pleasant.

“If you can go to a school consistently rated in the top 10 nationally that has (Advanced Placement) classes, then why would you pay $25,000 for a private school that might not have the same offerings?” McGinley said.

McGinley said she generally liked the proposal to guarantee the top middle school students admittance; it doesn’t lower the school’s standards, and “it would enable us to tap into more schools and make sure our middle school students have a shot.”

A lack of black students can be found at other sought-after magnet schools, such as Buist Academy and School of the Arts. District and school leaders are cognizant of the issue and have been making efforts to raise minority students’ awareness of the schools.

School of the Arts launched a student-led outreach program in the district’s high-poverty elementary schools to expose children to the school and help with their applications.

Diversity priority


Charlisa Pugh is a parent of two students at Academic Magnet High. Her family moved to Charleston from Nashville, Tenn., about two years ago. Her daughter, then a sophomore, had been in a similar school in Tennessee, and Pugh said the biggest difference between the schools was that Academic Magnet was less diverse.

“(Academic Magnet High) is an excellent school, and they love it and I love it,” Pugh said. “But they did make that notation.”

Pugh approached Peterson about forming a diversity committee made up of parents, teachers and administrators who would be dedicated to exploring options to increase diversity. That happened last year, and most of its recommendations have centered on the school’s admissions process and marketing efforts, and ensuring it’s more equitable for students applying from private or public schools.

“It’s really an awareness piece that’s missing,” she said.

Pugh said the committee didn’t come up with the concept of guaranteeing eligible middle school students a spot in the school, but it did discuss it.

“If the goal of the plan is to attract and enroll a more diverse population, then I support it,” she said.

As an African-American mother with African-American children in public schools, Pugh said she wants her children to have a rich education that goes beyond academics and exposes them to different types of diversity.

Some middle school leaders were supportive of the possible change, too. At Zucker Middle in North Charleston, 69 percent of its 520 students are black.

Jim Brooks, one of the school’s guidance counselors, said none of the school’s students were accepted to Academic Magnet last year, and one was accepted the previous year.

He liked the proposal and said it might be a motivating factor for some middle school students to do better.

“I’d like to see other students have the opportunity to go there,” he said. “Some students might not even think about applying because they feel like it’s so hard to get in. They feel like they might not have a chance, but if they knew they had that chance. ... I think that would be positive.”

Mack, one of Zucker Middle’s standout eighth-graders, said she liked the idea, too, and she thought it would encourage more students to apply. After hearing about the proposal from The Post and Courier, Mack said she planned to submit an application.

Going forward


The county school board would have the final say on whether this plan happens. Board member Michael Miller said he couldn’t say whether the admissions policy change was good or bad, and he wanted to talk more about why more African-American students are choosing not to go to the school.

He doesn’t have the answer, but he said that may be more of an issue than whether minority students are capable of getting into the school.

Peterson plans to present a few ideas to the superintendent this week, and she said she wanted to get her feedback before going to the broader Academic Magnet High community and the county school board.

The concept is generating conversations among those who have heard about it, and she said it could be a positive for everyone involved.

“We’re pretty confident it’s not going to solve the problem, but it’s a step,” Peterson said. “The step is designed to say to the middle schools ‘We want your children. Let’s work together to get them interested in Magnet and be a choice for them.’ ”

Reach Diette Courrégé Casey at @Diette on Twitter or 843-937-5546.

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