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Education: Pittsburgh schools trying to get away from race-based admissions 

Worried that a Supreme Court decision brands the Pittsburgh School District's admissions system as unconstitutional, school officials are carefully planning to remove the system's reliance on racial quotas without destroying schools' racial diversity.

Born in the 1970s as a voluntary way of desegregating the district, magnet schools have been among the most successful programs in the city. Average state math and reading scores at Crafton Heights-magnet Pittsburgh Classical Academy, for example, were more than seven percentage points higher than the district average in 2007.

But last summer, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that programs similar to Pittsburgh's were illegal, because they relied on racial criteria to place students in school-choice programs.

"The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race," wrote Chief Justice John Roberts in his decision, "is to stop discriminating on the basis of race."

In response to the landmark decision, school officials are considering an overhaul of the admissions process, which would remove racial quotas in an effort to put the district in compliance with the court ruling.

"We're going to have to revise the process to eliminate the racial quotas," says district solicitor Ira Weiss. "[The district] has to come up with a different way to categorize and prioritize admissions."

For more than 20 years the district has been using lotteries divided along racial lines to fill rosters at magnet schools. For instance, Weiss says, "If there were 100 seats, 50 would be for white [students], and 50 would be for African Americans." Each pool of 50 is raffled off separately. However, there are some exceptions: Pittsburgh's Creative Academy for the Performing Arts (CAPA), for example, requires auditions to qualify for admission to the program. In those cases, enrollment wasn't strictly split in half between races. "But fundamentally," Weiss says, "it was a quota system."

The district may have already found an alternative approach. In August, the school board passed new admissions criteria for its Science and Technology 6-12 magnet school, which is expected to open at Oakland's Frick Middle School building for the 2009-10 school year. The new system, which doesn't rely on racial quotas, uses a weighted lottery to determine which students attend the program.

Some students must meet certain criteria to have their names entered into the lottery once. (For example, ninth graders must score at least Basic, a designation reflecting "marginal" academic performance, in math and reading.) But upon being entered into the draft, students can have their names added up to five more times if they meet additional criteria. For instance, students who qualify for free or reduced lunches and perform well on state exams can have their names entered two more times, giving them an increased chance of being chosen for the Science and Technology program.

By those standards, Weiss says, the district can avoid being accused of using racial quotas to fill the program. And by using qualifications such as free or reduced lunches, he adds, the district can still promote diversity, at least to a certain extent. But Weiss cautions that the criteria for the Science and Technology program can't be perfectly transferred to the rest of the district's magnet schools, mainly because admissions to the school rely partly on math and science academic requirements that other magnets don't have.

School-board members Randall Taylor and Mark Brentley Sr. -- both of whom are African American -- voted against the Science and Technology admissions measure, partly because they didn't think it would ensure racial diversity, and partly because they wanted the district to maintain the old admissions criteria until a comprehensive plan was crafted for all of the district's magnet schools.

Taylor says he's torn about what to do with the district's policy. On the one hand, he says, the district shouldn't tamper with the smoothly functioning system, especially since it has yet to attract any criticism or controversy. On the other hand, he acknowledges that changing the policy to reflect the Supreme Court's decision can protect the district from lawsuits.

"I understand what [the district] is doing," says Taylor. "But I'm concerned that we may not maintain our diversity that we've had in these magnet schools."

Currently, according to district statistics, blacks comprise roughly 55 percent of the district's total magnet population, while they make up about 65 percent of the district as a whole.

According to board member Jean Fink, the new Science and Technology policy could serve as an attractive model for the rest of the district's magnet schools. "It seems to me like this would put us in compliance" with the Supreme Court ruling, she says. "I think the weighted-lottery system is as good as any other.

"Will we have diversity at 50/50 [black and white]?" she rhetorically asks. "I don't think so. ... But I think we will have diversity."

In any case, the magnet program seems to be in limbo for now.

Since the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights has yet to issue a directive on how schools should alter their admissions policies, Weiss says, the district can use the current process at least until next year's magnet registration period. But he adds that administrators hope to put a revamped proposal before the school board early next year.

Most of the ideas include some sort of modified lottery, Weiss says. But "This is not a simple matter."

click to enlarge 38_news_briefs_randall_taylor.jpg

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