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Getting into one of Charleston’s top-performing high schools might look a little different next year.

Charleston County School District officials presented an early draft of possible changes to the entrance criteria and admission process for incoming freshmen at Academic Magnet High School.

No action was taken on the changes Monday, but the proposal could be brought to the board for a vote in November, said Superintendent Gerrita Postlewait.

Academic Magnet has been long regarded as one of the highest performing high schools in the state. This year, the school even claimed the No. 1 spot on a national ranking of public high schools.

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But the school also has been scrutinized for its lack of racial and socioeconomic diversity.

Last year, around 4 percent of the school’s students were black. Seventy-eight percent were white and 18 percent were other races or ethnicities, according to data from the S.C. Department of Education.

The existing application process at Academic Magnet uses a 15 point rubric that incorporates a student’s GPA, standardized test scores, teacher recommendations and a writing sample, according to Principal Catherine Spencer.

Students who score between 13 and 15 points are ranked by score and accepted, starting with the students who scored the highest. If multiple students have the same score, they are selected using a lottery system.

This year, the school accepted 185 students for the ninth grade and still had a waiting list of about 70 more, Spencer said. 

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Under the new proposal, automatic acceptance would be offered to the top 2.5 percent of students from every middle school in the county, without any entrance criteria.

At least 50 percent of all available slots would be filled this way. If all Charleston County zip codes are not represented through this process, two students residing in unrepresented zip codes will also be offered seats.

Students and parents would have two weeks to accept or decline seats.

Once a minimum of 50 percent of seats are offered, other applicants would be considered using updated entrance criteria and a tiered priority system.

The first priority would be given to students living in Charleston County who have attended a public school for a full year before applying.

The next priority would be students who live in Charleston but not enrolled in a public school.

Then non-resident students who are enrolled in a CCSD school would be considered. Non-resident students who are not enrolled in a CCSD school would be prioritized last.

“It’s foreseeable that if you are in one of the lower-ranking priorities you may not get offered a seat,” said Natalie Ham, the district’s staff attorney. 

If passed, the proposed changes would also give less weight to teacher recommendations in the scoring rubric. 

Spencer said she’s worked to increase diversity at the school since she arrived in 2017, including increased outreach efforts to students from underrepresented middle schools and a $100,000 grant designed to increase the number of students from low- to middle-income households.

Academic Magnet one of four schools nationally to receive $100,000 grant to help students in need

During the past two years, the school has grown from 18 percent to 22 percent minority students, Spencer said, but there’s still work to be done. 

Spencer said the district’s new proposals unveiled Monday night “fit perfectly into that idea of accepting the challenge of diversity and finding a multiplicity of ways to attract more students to provide more access.”

That doesn’t mean the criteria won’t be revised, she added. “Everything still needs refinement, there’s no doubt about that.”

Board vice chair Kate Darby noted the debate over Academic Magnet’s entry process is nothing new.

“This has been something that’s been talking about for more than five years, so I appreciate the time you’ve put into it,” Darby said, “and I’m confident that the nine of us will be very thoughtful and take input from folks as we move forward on this.”

Postlewait said she plans to meet with Academic Magnet leaders later this week. The School Board could vote on the changes as early as Nov. 11.

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