School admissions practices defended

Officials play down lowering of standards at elite high schools, point to wider choices


Moving to defuse a controversy over lowered admission standards at some of Baltimore's elite high schools, two top school system officials defended their actions yesterday, saying top students are deciding to attend other schools.

Bonnie S. Copeland, the system's chief executive officer, and school board Chairman Brian D. Morris called an impromptu news conference at Mergenthaler Vocational-Technical High School, where Morris called the controversy "somewhat a farce."

Last week, The Sun reported that the school system has lowered admissions standards at Western High School, the nation's oldest all-girls public high school, accepting 125 freshmen for the class of 2010 who would have been rejected in previous years. At Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, fewer than one-quarter of next school year's freshmen met admission requirements.

In addition, some of the most qualified students were turned away from Polytechnic Institute because they listed the school as their second choice on their applications.

Morris said officials had made minor adjustments to the high school admission process, but it had not changed significantly from the past. He also said high-achieving students now have more quality schools to choose from than the elite Western, Poly and City College. Dunbar is trying to establish a health professions curriculum in partnership with neighboring Johns Hopkins Hospital.

"The reality is, our students have the opportunity to select what schools they want to attend," Morris said. "We've opened up the issue of schoolwide choice and we've provided very rigorous academic programs outside of the four schools that are represented here. There are some students that are choosing to attend other schools, much to their credit and much to the credit of the system."

Copeland said there are at least 20 schools drawing students away from the elite citywide schools. Both school officials pointed to growing interest among students in the other schools, some of which feature specific academic programs such as pre-law but lack entrance standards.

"We're increasing the number of schools each year," Copeland said. "Because of the high school reform initiative, we have six new innovation high schools. Some started last year; some started the year before. Students are now finding out ... they now have these six new innovation high schools, and five of our comprehensive high schools have been divided into smaller learning academies.

"There are no fewer qualified students, but more choices for them."

Morris also noted that the curriculum at the elite schools will not change.

But as for admission requirements, the school system compiles composite scores based on factors including grades and test scores using a scale of up to 780 for those schools. Students previously needed a 610 to get in, but Western and Dunbar, without enough qualified candidates, lowered their minimum score to 550.

The lower standards continue to cause a community uproar.

"We have other bastions of excellence in this school system, and children are choosing to attend some of these schools," Morris said. "However, it does not at all diminish what is happening at City, Poly, Western and Dunbar. These schools are still the best and brightest that this state has to offer, and we will continue to support them like we always have."

School officials met with principals from those four schools for two hours yesterday morning to address what Morris called "issues of communication."

Shortly after the controversy at Western - which boasts a 100 percent college acceptance rate - Poly Principal Barney J. Wilson said that the city school system had rejected top students applying to that school because it had not been their top choice. Wilson also said other students who barely met requirements were admitted because Poly was their first choice.

Wilson could not be reached for further comment.

"Each year, there have been modifications according to how many students you have available that meet those requirements [for the elite schools]," Morris said. "The confusion came in as to who chose what schools as their first choice. In the past, you could choose three choices. Now you can choose up to five choices."

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