LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – It appears Jefferson County Public Schools wants to move forward with plans to centralize the district's application and acceptance process for its magnet schools.

During a work session tonight (Monday) with the school board, officials will talk about the district's progress in implementing three recommendations from the Magnet Schools of America – changes that could make magnet school seats more accessible to more people, starting with the 2016-17 year.

The biggest change includes a proposal to have the district's elementary magnet schools randomly select students by not using any criteria, while the district's middle and high magnet schools would use four things to admit students: attendance, behavior, test scores and grade point average.

That recommendation brings three possible admissions scenarios: combine the four criteria and do a random draw of students who meet that threshold, rank students based on the four criteria and fill slots by moving down from a ranked list or do a random draw of all students that meet each of the criteria.

“We would determine capacity of each program and school, review applications according to standardized criteria and then randomly select students who meet the criteria,” said Bob Rodosky, executive director of data management, planning and program evaluation for JCPS.

The school board will not vote on any changes to its magnet school admissions process tonight – that won't likely happen until next month, after the district receives feedback from a community input session.

However, the recommendation has brought heated debate at schools like duPont Manual High, where the PTSA is asking parents and students to “speak up for change” and sign a petition letting the Superintendent Donna Hargens and board members know they do not support changes to the school's admissions process.

“Rumors of requiring a lottery system and/or a centralized admissions process are of great concern to our membership and to those at other JCPS magnet schools and programs,” said Pinky Jackson, the president of Manual's PTSA.

JCPS – the 28th largest district in the country with an enrollment of 101,000 students – has a variety of schools and programs and it prides itself as being a “choice” district. That means it that lets parents apply to the school or program that best meets their child's needs or learning style.

Yet submitting an application doesn't guarantee placement in a school or program and every school must follow the diversity guidelines outlined in the district's controversial student assignment plan, which uses socio-economic factors such as educational attainment, household income and race averages of a student's geographic region when assigning students to schools other than their home school.

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The district currently uses three different processes when assigning kids to its magnet schools and traditional and magnet programs – “criteria based,” “random draw” and “random draw and criteria.” The process used depends on the school, Rodosky said.

The problem the district has run into is that the magnet process is not standardized – some schools require different things such as essays and letters of recommendations in order to be considered for admission, while other schools require interviews and a visit.

“The differences in application process and how our schools are selecting students can be confusing to parents,” Rodosky said. “We want to simplify the process and make it easier and more transparent.”

The lack of transparency was specifically mentioned in the Magnet Schools of America's final report, which was presented to the school board in April 2014.

“Lack of transparency of selection criteria and local selection of students make it difficult for the district to achieve diversity in its magnet schools,” the report states.

The Magnet Schools of America review, which cost the district $75,790, came three years after national school-integration expert Gary Orfield recommended JCPS reassess many of its magnet programs, which he said "aren't very magnetic" in drawing students to other parts of the city as intended.

Orfield's suggested that the district's magnet programs could help integrate schools if they were better operated.

Parents like Jackson and Delene Taylor at Manual say that JCPS needs to keep Manual as a selective school in order to maintain choices for families. They are urging parents to call school board members and show up at tonight's school board meeting.

They note that the Magnet Schools of American report indicates that Manual's process should remain selective, but should add a transparent application process that is “clear, accessible and outlines entrance criteria.”

“Offering our math, science and technology (MST) or high school university (HSU) programs through a lottery is not a choice,” she said. “And ultimately, neither program would survive in its current form if it is made up of students selected by a lottery.”

The petition, which has already been signed by 1,700 people, states that a lottery system

“would damage not only the academic reputation of our city, county, and state, but also JCPS' ability to retain the best and brightest students.”

The work session will start at 5 p.m. tonight at the Van Hoose Education Center, 3332 Newburg Road.

Reporter Antoinette Konz can be reached at 502-585-0838 or @tkonz on Twitter.

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