School board rejects wider magnet effort Parents accuse officials of reneging on vow to expand; Lottery to be instituted; 3-2 decision means program will remain at 2 high schools


The Howard County school board narrowly rejected expanding its new technology magnet program last night, settling on a lottery to choose which students will be allowed to enroll next fall.

The board's 3-2 vote keeps the magnet program only at Long Reach and River Hill high schools next fall. Board members agreed to reconsider adding magnet sites to Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake high schools perhaps for the 1999-2000 school year.

The board also voted to guarantee that the ninth- and 10th-grade introductory magnet courses will be offered at all of the county's high schools next year -- ensuring that students will be prepared to transfer to the magnet high schools after their sophomore year if space becomes available.

With the overwhelming student interest, the decision means that about 100 eighth-graders who live west of U.S. 29 and about 175 eighth-graders who live east of U.S. 29 won't be allowed in the program next fall -- a move that already is upsetting some parents who believe that the board promised the program would be available to all interested students.

"It's outrageous," Nancy Miller, whose son is an eighth-grader at Patuxent Valley Middle School, said after the board's decision. "The promise was made that all students would have a chance to enter the program, and now they're going back on that."

The magnet program is meant to be a rigorous, high-tech replacement of the county's vocational-technical program and is designed for students of all abilities.

More than 600 freshmen, sophomores and juniors enrolled in the program when it began in August, and a similar number of eighth-graders have signed up to enter next fall.

Those numbers far exceed the capacity of Long Reach and River Hill, and the board decided to set aside only 100 spaces in each school for out-of-district magnet eighth-graders next fall. A lottery will be held to pick which of the applicants who lives east and west of U.S. 29 will be allowed to enroll in Long Reach and River Hill respectively.

All students who live within either the River Hill or Long Reach districts are allowed to enroll in the magnet program.

School officials had proposed last month that all students interested in the program could be accommodated by adding sites at Oakland Mills and Wilde Lake.

But last night, Howard schools Superintendent Michael E. Hickey recommended that the board not expand the program, saying it's too new and there are too many uncertainties that still need to be worked out.

Hickey also said it would be difficult to hire enough qualified teachers for an expanded magnet program and questioned whether the business community would be able to provide enough 12th-grade internship opportunities for all of the extra students.

Board chairwoman Sandra French and members Linda Johnston and Jane Schuchardt voted not to expand the program, and members Stephen Bounds and Karen Campbell voted in favor of expansion.

"I don't think we can afford to take the risk that we may be letting some of our students and parents down in the future," Johnston said of the uncertainties surrounding expanding the magnet.

None of the board members said they liked the idea of a lottery to choose which students get into the program, but those who voted to keep it only at two high schools said it seemed to be the best alternative.

"I have problems seeing students excluded, and I have problems with a lottery -- it's not money, but it's children's lives, which is more important than money," Schuchardt said. But she said the magnet program was still an untested pilot program and warned that the school system has expanded too many pilot programs too quickly in the past, often with negative results.

"We can't do that to [students]," Schuchardt said. "They're in high school, and it's too important to them."

But Bounds said the magnet program is a sound idea. "The program is by all accounts a raising of the bar, and I don't think we can go wrong raising the bar," he said.

Bounds also said he believed the board had made a "commitment to students" and that the magnet "targets students we want to reach. " The board members who voted to guarantee that the prerequisite courses will be offered at all eight nonmagnet high schools said they hoped it would allow interested magnet students who lose in the lottery to keep their options open if magnet spaces open up, either through students who drop out or through expansion.

But students who take the prerequisite courses at nonmagnet schools won't be guaranteed space in the program for the 11th grade -- leaving some school officials frustrated that the board is going to end up turning away students in two years after they've taken extra courses.

The board resorted to a lottery -- rather than using such criteria as grade-point average or attendance -- because the philosophy of the program is to attract students of all abilities into the magnet. The main prerequisite is that magnet students be enrolled in beginning algebra by ninth grade.

Still, board members suggested that school officials look into ways of setting up some more stringent entrance requirements for future magnet classes -- perhaps requiring all entering magnet students to have passed the basic Maryland Functional Tests.

During yesterday's magnet discussion, the board also voted to impose a set of academic requirements that magnet students must complete by the end of 10th grade to stay in the program, including having at least a 2.0 grade-average, a "C"-average in LTC math classes and 13 completed credits.

Hickey did not specify when the lottery results would be released, but students who are selected for the magnet likely would need to know by early March, in time for high school course registration for next fall.

Pub Date: 2/12/97

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