New magnet school or lottery might boost diversity, parents say

Parents of current and future Academic Magnet High School students were split Tuesday on how to increase diversity at the school amid concerns the Charleston County School District may be considering a change to the school’s admissions process.

“We need more diversity,” said Charlisa Pugh, who serves as the chair of Academic Magnet’s diversity committee. “It’s not just racial diversity. It’s socioeconomic diversity. It’s diversity of thought. It’s geographic diversity.”

More than five parents spoke on the issue of admissions at Academic Magnet during a meeting of the Charleston County School Board’s Strategic Education Committee, where the group received a briefing on admissions policies for the district’s countywide magnet schools.

Parents began to raise concerns last week about the district’s plans to change admissions at Academic Magnet after the district delayed sending out acceptance letters in order to hold internal discussions about the admissions process.

Assistant Associate Superintendent Paul Padron said the district is considering several options to implement in future years to improve access and diversity at Academic Magnet.

One option is to automatically extend admission to the top two eighth-graders from each of the district’s middle schools who meet the admissions criteria. The other is to develop an outreach program for middle school students that would include summer camps with Academic Magnet teachers and tutoring with the school’s students.

Padron said no changes will be made in the admissions process for the 2015-16 school year and that acceptance letters for Academic Magnet High School would be sent out on Wednesday.

Pugh, whose son is one of only 15 black students at Academic Magnet, said she supported having a lottery system for any student who meets the school’s minimum admissions criteria.

“I do feel the lottery is one option that we have for any student who has qualified, who has met the rigorous academic admissions criteria at our school,” Pugh said.

Currently, students are admitted in order of their score on a 15-point rubric that includes grade point average, standardized reading and math scores, a teacher recommendation and a writing sample. Of the 518 rising ninth-graders who applied to Academic Magnet this school year, 312 students met the minimum score for acceptance, said Principal Judith Peterson. About 200 students will be accepted, Padron said.

A majority of the parents who spoke were not in favor of a lottery at Academic Magnet. Some parents suggested creating a second academic magnet school to provide another option for students. Pugh suggested building a feeder middle school.

Christen Hall, president of Academic Magnet’s Parents In Education group, said the school’s current application doesn’t include information on a student’s race, gender or nationality.

“It’s blind to that,” Hall said. “I think it’s a very fair system.”

Parent Amy Rankin, whose daughter is among the students waiting to hear if she was accepted at the school, said she supports efforts to improve diversity at the school, but not at the expense of the school’s academic standards. Rankin suggested the district offer more support to parents interested in applying to magnet schools, which she described as a “daunting” process.

The committee took no action Tuesday regarding admissions policies for any of its magnet schools. School Board member Chris Collins, who is the chairman of the Strategic Education Committee, said the goal is to make sure the district’s magnet schools are an option for all students.

“We just want to make sure every child knows about it,” he said.