Magnet schools' admissions under attack

March 20, 1994|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,Sun Staff Writer

Even before they open, two of Baltimore County's new magnet schools are drawing fire from families whose children were denied admission because of their race, their sex or the neighborhoods where they live.

County school officials concede that race and sex played a part in their decisions.

They say white students were denied admission to the programs to maintain the racial balance in their predominantly black neighborhood schools.

But they say those choices were required by regulations governing a $2.26 million federal desegregation grant they are -- using to help staff and equip the magnet programs.

Federal education officials concede that the policy can create problems. But they say the county abided by their guidelines when it selected students for Sudbrook Middle and Cromwell Valley Elementary schools.

Sudbrook officials also underestimated the number of applicants and quietly changed their admissions policy without notifying parents who said they had been assured their children would be admitted.

These explanations don't assuage unhappy parents who say the admissions process was unfair, deceitful and discriminatory, penalizing white families who live in predominantly black neighborhoods.

"Because we live in ZIP code 21133 and my son is white, he didn't get in," said Lanie Yanowitz of Randallstown.

Although the school judged him "highly qualified," Jason Yanowitz won't be going to sixth grade at Sudbrook. The main reason, his mother said, is that he lives within the boundaries of nearby Old Court Middle School, which has an 84 percent minority enrollment and cannot afford to lose white students.

"It's so unfair. It's so wrong," Mrs. Yanowitz said. "I have nothing against Old Court. I just think this school is right for my son. He cried for eight hours. I've never seen him so upset."

Nelson and Denise Allen say the same thing happened when their son and daughter were denied admission to Cromwell. The Allen youngsters are among 65 white children of 582 students at Hillendale Elementary School.

The county turned down all 28 white students from Hillendale who applied for Cromwell but accepted all 63 minority applicants.

"We were unable to accept any white students from Hillendale," said Anita Stockton, the system's magnet school director. "It would have moved minority isolation in entirely the wrong direction," which is prohibited by the federal Magnet School Assistance Program that provided the money.

Imbalance imperils funding

By admitting the white Hillendale students to the Cromwell school, officials would have increased Hillendale's minority enrollment from 89 percent to nearly 95 percent, said Cromwell Principal Theresa Flak. That would have undermined the school BTC system's goal of reducing Hillendale's percentage of minority students to 85 and jeopardized $500,000 in federal funds slated for Cromwell.

Had more minority students from Hillendale applied, they likely would have been accepted, officials said. The other children turned down for Cromwell either lived outside the designated magnet area or were late in applying, Ms. Flak said.

"It's the basic philosophy of what's happening that I'm opposed to," Mrs. Allen said. "It smacks of reverse discrimination. I don't want this to become a racial issue, but that's what it's becoming."

Sudbrook and Cromwell were among 20 Baltimore County schools closed between 1978 and 1985 because of dwindling enrollment.

But with the school population surging again, the school system created seven magnet programs in 1993 and will start seven more this fall. Many are in unused or underused buildings, which will reduce crowding in neighboring schools.

Sudbrook, the first middle school magnet, will reopen in September with about 800 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders in four programs: visual arts, performing arts, Japanese, and mathematics and science.

Cromwell will open with 420 students (from 485 applicants) as an elementary magnet specializing in technology. In addition to Hillendale, Cromwell draws from Villa Cresta, Pleasant Plains, Hampton, Stoneleigh, Rodgers Forge and Oakleigh elementaries. All are crowded, and all have small minority enrollments.

At the heart of the Sudbrook and Cromwell controversy are the schools' unexpected popularity and the county's decision to seek federal desegregation dollars for them.

No court challenges

"We have no problem with what is being done . . . according to statute," said Sylvia Wright, chief of the magnet schools and desegregation branch of the U.S. Department of Education. Ms. Wright said she knew of no court challenges to the program, which has been providing money to magnet schools created for desegregation since the mid-1980s.

"To the extent that programs are trying to balance [schools] better, . . . you do have kids who cannot be selected," Ms. Wright said. "It doesn't make us happy, but it seems a necessary consequence of the program."

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