Darby Mack Green 2.jpg (copy)

Charleston County School Board members Kate Darby, the Rev. Eric Mack and Joyce Green attend a school board meeting meeting Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

The Charleston County School Board punted on a total overhaul of its school choice application system Monday night, making only one change that will take effect this year.

The change is a relatively minor one compared to the more ambitious ideas on the table: When the school choice application window opens in February, parents and students will be able to apply to schools either online or via a paper form. This is a reversal in policy for the district, which went to online-only applications in 2016.

"Our goal is to make this as easy as possible," said board chair the Rev. Eric Mack.

The school choice application process in Charleston County is a fraught political battleground, caught up in a broader conversation about equity and racial integration in Charleston County schools.

The number of applications to public magnet and charter schools in Charleston County tripled from 2015 to 2018. A record 6,035 students submitted 12,991 applications for 2,339 available seats via the district’s online school choice system last year. Some of the most sought-after magnet schools are racially imbalanced, with much larger white student populations than the district as a whole.

The board is considering changes that would apply to the hyper-competitive admissions processes at schools like Buist Academy, Academic Magnet High and the School of the Arts, as noted on an agenda for Monday night's board meeting.

Board members could decide to create a second campus for schools with “entrance criteria and long waiting lists of qualified applicants.” The proposal does not set a timeline for when such second campuses would open.

"The rest of the recommendations will require more time to vet thoroughly and incorporate in the coming years," district spokesman Andy Pruitt said.

For schools that require a standardized test for admission, the board could also lower the threshold for admission to allow students who scored at the 65th percentile or above. Currently, Academic Magnet turns away some students with near-perfect test scores on its entrance rubric, admitting only the very highest performers (a handful of other students have been admitted via a pilot program that offers acceptance to the top two graduates of each middle school).

Another proposal would “ensure all eligible students receive transportation as needed," including district-wide charter schools.

The board's discussion follows a report last year by Clemson researchers, who spent six months studying how Charleston County could improve diversity and equity in its public schools.

Earlier this month, the county announced it would delay the start of its school choice process for at least a few weeks until the board could vote on any policy changes. The application window usually opens in January. The board voted to give two weeks' public notice before opening the application process, so applications will likely be open in mid-February.

A full list of proposed school choice policy changes is available on the school district website. District officials were unable to give an exact timeline for when further changes would take place.

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Reach Paul Bowers at 843-937-5546. Follow him on Twitter @paul_bowers.