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Magnet Schools Need Admission Standards


October 05, 2007

Until Hartford's public magnet high schools have admissions requirements that reflect the academic accomplishment expected of potential students, the city schools will struggle to attract suburban students.

The current system of admitting students by lottery shuts out bright, motivated students from both the suburbs and city and diminishes the exceptional learning environment that magnets are designed to create.

The irony is that the lottery system may harm the very students it should benefit. The talented student from the suburbs who is not selected via the lottery may have other attractive options, while the rising star from the inner city who is not chosen is much less likely to come from a family that has the resources to send its son or daughter to a highly regarded private school.

In order for a suburban parent to send a child to a magnet high school in another municipality, that parent must be convinced that the magnet school offers an educational opportunity superior to that in the student's home district. Paramount among such considerations is the magnet school's academic standards and intellectual rigor. It is difficult if not impossible, however, to achieve such a goal if there are no requirements for admission and if the most academically qualified may lose a place simply by virtue of the luck of the draw.

Some may claim that effects of racism are so pervasive that a lottery system is the only selection mechanism to ensure that minority students will not suffer discrimination. This thesis is not borne out by the experience of other municipalities. New York's Bronx School of Science and Stuyvesant High School have highly selective admissions policies, yet enjoy healthy integrated populations. (Bronx Science is 29 percent white and 71 percent minority; Stuyvesant is 36 percent white and 64 percent minority.)

Boston Latin's reputation is so strong that residents of the suburbs have been known to purchase property in Boston to satisfy the residency requirement for admission. Indeed, Connecticut appears to be unique in the Northeast, or at the very least highly unusual, in its absence of public "exam schools."

It must be acknowledged that not every student is capable of doing the work of a given school. For example, the University High School of Science and Engineering in Hartford features a rigorous and demanding curriculum that encourages qualified students to complete at least a modicum of college courses (thereby earning college credit) before graduation. Admission standards that show a given student may have talents that lie elsewhere should not be taken as a rejection, but rather part of the journey of finding the school where such students can best reach their potential.

For those who remain unconvinced that a selective admission policy would not result in a segregated school, there are compromise approaches available. For example, a system could be devised in which some of the available slots in a given school were determined by examination (or other appropriate criteria) while others were chosen by lottery.

Still another alternative might be to establish a legitimate set of minimum qualifications for entrance (above and beyond having passed the previous grade) and then administer a lottery of those students who atisfy these requirements. In either case, the racial balance could be monitored carefully over a predetermined length of time to ensure that the system did not devolve into de facto apartheid.

Higher education in America is a meritocracy and the envy of the world. It is open to all, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual preference, and there are a plethora of financial aid programs designed to assist the economically disadvantaged. However, despite the best efforts of many talented and dedicated educators, American public education from kindergarten through high school does not enjoy the same reputation.

Establishment of admissions criteria at selected high schools having a magnet theme will elevate the quality of education for all Connecticut students, and will greatly assist in attracting a truly diverse and integrated population.

Alan Hadad is dean of magnet schools at the University of Hartford, which hosts two public magnet schools on its campus: the University High School of Science and Engineering and the University of Hartford Magnet School (for pre-kindergarten to fifth-grade students). He is a professor of physics and former dean of the university's College of Engineering, Technology and Architecture.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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