Admissions flap spreads to Poly

Some top students were rejected in favor of those with lower grades and test scores

March 24, 2006|By SARA NEUFELD | SARA NEUFELD,SUN REPORTER

A day after the disclosure that admission standards were lowered at Western High School, the principal of Polytechnic Institute, another of Baltimore's elite public schools, said that "a substantial number" of the most qualified applicants were turned away there in favor of students with lower grades and test scores.

All 425 students accepted to Poly's class of 2010 meet its entrance requirements. But Principal Barney J. Wilson said the city school system rejected top students because they had made Poly their second choice when they sought admission to the city's prestigious high schools. Other students who barely met the requirements were admitted because they had made Poly their first choice.

Meanwhile, school system officials released figures showing that fewer than a quarter of next school year's freshmen met admissions requirements at Paul Laurence Dunbar High, a historically black school trying to toughen its standards.

The revelations come amid an uproar among Western's parents, students and alumnae over lowered admissions standards at the nation's oldest all-girls public high school, where 125 of 250 freshmen admitted for the class of 2010 met previously established entrance requirements.

The disclosures reveal a potential diminishing of quality at the city's elite high schools, traditionally a bright spot in a beleaguered school system.

Marion W. Pines, a Western graduate and senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies, said the elite high schools keep many families from moving to the suburbs or sending their children to private schools.

"Having that option is what's keeping them in Baltimore," she said, adding that she would rather her alma mater admit boys than lower its standards. "Without that, we may be losing people," she said

In an interview yesterday, schools Chief Executive Officer Bonnie S. Copeland said Western and Dunbar have had fewer applicants as more students are choosing to attend small, thematic high schools being created around the city. The new schools do not have admissions requirements.

But Copeland acknowledged that the city's middle schools are having trouble producing enough qualified students to fill the freshman classes at the schools with the most stringent admissions criteria: Poly, Western, Dunbar, City College and Baltimore School for the Arts.

Asked about the shortage of high-achieving students, Copeland talked about the system's efforts to reform elementary and high schools, then said, "Now we need to rededicate our resources to the middle grades."

Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan was quick to use the lowered standards as political fodder in his campaign against Mayor Martin O'Malley for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

"This is what happens when you don't put education first," Duncan said, calling on the city school system to raise standards in its elementary and middle schools to prepare children for elite high schools. "Why aren't students being prepared for a world-class opportunity?" he asked.

Because less-accomplished students have received letters of acceptance to Western and Dunbar, Duncan said, the system must provide the schools with the money to offer extra tutoring rather than water down the curriculum.

Copeland said the citywide high schools' budgets are "a little more generous" than those at other schools and that they are equipped to provide the support.

Raquel Guillory, a spokeswoman for O'Malley, said the mayor is "concerned" about the lowering of admissions standards. Noting that the mayor does not make academic decisions for the school system, she said, "The school system should maintain high standards ... and make sure the students can meet those standards."

Nathaniel J. McFadden, chairman of Baltimore's state Senate delegation, also weighed in, writing in a letter to school board Chairman Brian D. Morris that it is hard for him to fight for state funding for the city schools when the system is mired in needless controversy.

`Stop this madness!'

"These negative articles in the newspapers and controversies in the communities don't help me get support in the General Assembly," McFadden wrote. "Stop this madness!"

Responding to reports that Western and Dunbar also lowered admissions standards for this school year, McFadden asked Morris for a report on the progress of the students who didn't meet the criteria for last year.

Frank DeStefano, the system's deputy chief academic officer, said yesterday that he had provided incorrect information on how much admissions requirements to Western were lowered for this school year.

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

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