Academic Magnet High School graduate Emily Rutledge Early remembers her years there fondly.
The 2002 graduate recalls the school as being one that was diverse not just in terms of race, but in thought and culture.
“I think that the diversity of the student body and the level of camaraderie or friendship among all of the students was one of the touchstones of the school that I think was so awesome,” Early said.
At the time she graduated, Early was one of 127 black students at Academic Magnet out of 477 students. Since that time, enrollment of black students at Charleston County’s top-performing high school has plummeted to only 16 this school year out of nearly 650 students, a fact that Early calls “troublesome.”
School officials have discussed ways of improving diversity at all of Charleston County’s magnet schools in recent years, but diversity at Academic Magnet continues to be a challenge.
The lack of black students at the school became even more sensitive last year after the school’s football team came under scrutiny for its controversial victory ritual involving the smashing of watermelons, which some saw as perpetuating demeaning stereotypes of African-Americans.
Early’s father Everard Rutledge was among the first in the community to publicly raise the issue of diversity to the Charleston County School Board following the controversy at Academic Magnet.
Rutledge, a retired executive with Bon Secours hospital system, said he doesn’t believe the school’s enrollment of black students reflects the pool of qualified students in the county.
“I can pretty much bet you we could find (black) students — more than five, more than 50, more than 100 — who can meet the rigor of the school,” he said.
Some Academic Magnet parents are calling for a change in the admissions process and have urged the school board’s Strategic Education Committee to consider creating a lottery for all students who meet the school’s admissions requirements.
Students who qualify are accepted for admission based on their score on a 15-point scale that includes points for teacher recommendations, academic performance and standardized test scores. Students who score a 13 or above qualify for admission, but in recent years, few students who have scored less than a 14 actually get in.
This year out of 517 applicants who applied to Academic Magnet, six black students qualified and three met the first round of admissions based on their score on the rubric. Just over 200 students were sent acceptance letters last month. The school anticipates enrolling around 180 students in its freshman class next fall.
Charlisa Pugh, whose son is one of the 16 black students attending Academic Magnet this school year, is among those leading the charge for a lottery.
“By using a lottery, all qualified students would have an opportunity, not just those at the top,” Pugh said.
Pugh, who relocated with her family to Charleston from Nashville a few years ago, said her oldest child attended Hume-Fogg Academic High School, a diverse magnet school in Nashville that used a lottery for admission. According to federal data, about 35 percent of Hume-Fogg’s students are minorities and 22 percent of the school’s 917 students are black. Academic Magnet has a minority enrollment of 15 percent, and 2 percent of the school’s students are black.
Pugh said she’s not suggesting that Academic Magnet lower its standards, only that more students who qualify should have a shot.
“It’s a chance after you qualify,” Pugh said. “In the past several years, students who have scored a 13 or a 13.5 have had no opportunity to experience this education.”
But a lottery wouldn’t necessarily equal more racial diversity, depending on who applies, something that Pugh acknowledges. Even if a lottery doesn’t bring in more racial diversity, she is confident it would diversify the school in other ways, such as adding students from more diverse socioeconomic backgrounds or from different parts of the county.
“For me, just to open it up for them to have a shot is a form of diversity,” Pugh said.
But not everyone believes a lottery is the right answer. Some Academic Magnet parents think that a lottery could exclude the most academically gifted students from attending the school. Dr. Darlene Rawls, who chairs Academic Magnet’s School Improvement Council, said that with more than 100 students on the school’s waiting list, maybe it’s time to open a second magnet high school.
“It doesn’t mean they’re not worthy of an Academic Magnet High School education,” Rawls said of the school’s growing waiting list. “To me it means we need another school.”
Rawls suggested opening a second magnet program at Burke High School in downtown Charleston, where Academic Magnet first opened in 1988. Burke, which is under-enrolled, Rawls said, has capacity to take on more students.
“I don’t see why that’s not a possibility,” Rawls said.
Lisa Herring, deputy superintendent of Academics for the Charleston County School District, said the district is acutely aware of the concerns surrounding diversity at Academic Magnet and the persistent decline of black students there.
“We recognize that there’s been a trend of decline and we’re sensitive to that,” Herring said.
It’s unclear why the number of black students has dropped and that’s what the district is working to find out, said Mary Runyon, who is coordinating the district’s magnet programs. Runyon said the school has not changed its admissions process or its admissions criteria in recent years.
The district is investigating a variety of factors that may be contributing to the school’s current demographics such as whether there’s been a significant change in the applicant pool, whether more students are applying from private schools or if students may be choosing to go to neighborhood high schools.
“It’s compound and complex,” Runyon said.
In addition to the internal investigation, the school district is also launching a task force of parents, school administrators and community members to look at issues of diversity within all of the district’s magnet and choice schools. Herring, who is leading the effort, hopes the group can make recommendations to the school board in the next few months.
Options such as a lottery and creating a second academic magnet school will likely be among potential remedies discussed, Herring said.
Another key factor for the task force to consider, Herring said, is student recruitment. The school district, Herring said, is already working to improve diversity among its gifted and talented and honors programs to create a pipeline of students.
School board member Kate Darby, who serves on the board’s Strategic Education Committee, said she thinks the district needs to evaluate the admissions processes at all of its magnet schools. But Darby also thinks the district needs to do a better job of preparing middle school students academically and then guiding qualified students through the magnet school application process.
“I don’t think just a lottery solves the problem,” Darby said. “We need more diversity in the applicant pool.”
And the issue of diversity and academic achievement goes beyond just Academic Magnet, Darby said. She thinks the district needs to make sure all of its schools are diverse and provide a challenging academic environment.
“Data shows that all students do better in integrated schools and that’s the direction we need to be going in,” Darby said.
As for Early, who is now an attorney in an Atlanta suburb, she thinks the key might be as simple as making sure parents and students at all the district’s schools know Academic Magnet is an option.
“If students and parents don’t know the school is out there, then you’re not going to have students applying,” she said.