Lowered admissions criteria stir outrage at prestigious Western High School

A question of standards

March 23, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

Western High School, Baltimore's prestigious all-girls public high school, has lowered its admissions standards to accept 125 freshmen who would have been rejected in years past, sparking cries of outrage from students and parents clamoring for quality public education in the city.

Western has a 100 percent college acceptance rate. Despite that, school system officials say, they had to lower the standards for half of the 250 girls admitted to the school's class of 2010 because they didn't have enough qualified applicants.

But Anthony Williams, Western's PTA president, said the school has had to turn away qualified students from private schools, as well as qualified public school students who listed Polytechnic Institute and City College - Baltimore's other elite magnet schools - ahead of Western on their school application forms.

"It's truly a nightmare," Williams said, arguing that the school system's decision sets up both the school and the unqualified students for failure. Girls who can't keep up with Western's rigorous academic standards are sent back to their neighborhood high schools.

Founded in 1844, Western is the nation's oldest all-girls public high school. Its distinguished graduates include Judge Sarah Tilghman Hughes, who swore in Lyndon B. Johnson as president; Henrietta Szold, the founder of Hadassah; Broadway actress Trazana Beverly, a Tony award winner; and playwright Anna Deavere Smith, who has a MacArthur "genius" grant and is now featured on The West Wing.

Today, Western consistently posts some of the highest test scores in the city. Williams fears the school's reputation will be diminished because of the decision to lower standards, a choice that he said system officials made without consulting the principal, Landa McLaurin.

Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer and the administrator responsible for setting the bar lower, said McLaurin "was called, but she didn't return the call."

McLaurin yesterday referred questions to the school system headquarters.

DeStefano also denied that any qualified students were turned away from Western, and he said standards were lowered just as much last year for lack of qualified applicants. Williams said in response: "Frank DeStefano is telling an out-and-out lie."

Last fall, Western parents, students and alumnae mobilized amid a rumor that the school system was planning to close the school or merge it with neighboring Polytechnic. Such a plan never materialized, but some supporters of the school still feel that Western is under attack.

"This is like round two," said Mary Pat Clarke, a city councilwoman and former city council president, whose daughters graduated from Western. She said the lowering of admission standards is "really an outrage."

Some Western students say the school is so demanding that they don't know how girls who don't meet the admissions requirements will be able to function there. The students say they often stay up late studying.

"Two o'clock, 3 o'clock in the morning, I'll be doing English homework," said senior Kierra Wagstaff, 17, president of Western's student government.

Added senior Molly Shipman, also 17 and president of the school's National Honor Society chapter: "From the very beginning, it's a huge adjustment coming into Western. Teachers have high standards and they expect you to come prepared every day. ... For students to come in unprepared, it would ultimately be a loss for them."

To determine which students are eligible to attend Baltimore's elite citywide high schools, the school system compiles composite scores based on factors such as grades and test scores. Students are supposed to have a score of at least 610 on a scale of 780 to be accepted to Western, Polytechnic, City College and Paul Laurence Dunbar High.

This year, DeStefano said, neither Western nor Dunbar had enough qualified applicants, and the minimum score was lowered to 550. He did not know how many of Dunbar's 150 incoming freshmen had scores below 610.

`We're offended'

Carl Stokes, a former city councilman and mayoral candidate who sits on the Dunbar Advisory Board, said the system also decided to lower the standards at Dunbar without consulting anyone affiliated with the school. He said the move flies in the face of the advisory board's work to help the school raise its academic standards.

"We're offended," he said, adding that it appears system officials "have decided to admit they are incompetent in sending through kids who are at a higher academic level to fill all of their citywide programs. There's no standalone middle school in the city that is not in academic chaos. There's always this subtle racism of low expectations for African-American and minority students, and for that matter poor students of any culture."

DeStefano said this is the second year Western's minimum score was lowered to 550. Despite the lower standards, all students admitted to Western and Dunbar are still performing above grade level.

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