LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- Jefferson County Public Schools will take a "step back" on a proposal that would have centralized the district's application and acceptance process for its magnet schools in order to make those seats more accessible to more people.

Superintendent Donna Hargens was initially planning on asking the board for approval as soon as June, but changed her mind after hearing concerns from several school board members during a packed hour-long work session held Monday night at the Van Hoose Education Center.

"Clearly we are not ready to move forward on this," Hargens told reporters after the work session. "So we will take a step back in order to move forward."

The biggest change in the proposal would have the district's elementary magnet schools randomly select students by using a lottery system without 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 brought 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.

School board chairman David Jones Jr. told Hargens that the proposal was "not acceptable as a work product" and told Hargens to not bother to come back to the board in June to ask for approval until more feedback was received from community stakeholders.

The recommendations stem from a review conducted by the Magnet Schools of America, which stated that a "lack of transparency of selection criteria and local selection of students makes it difficult for the district to achieve diversity in its magnet schools."

The review 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. He suggested the district's magnet programs could help integrate schools if they were better operated.

Board member Stephanie Horne said she was offended that the discussion seemed to revolve on what is best for student assignment, as opposed to what is best for student achievement.

"Without differences among our schools in how we pick the students that attend them, will we be destroying what makes us great as a community and what makes our schools great?" she asked.

Board members Diane Porter and Lisa Willner also said they were concerned with the quick timeline -- district officials had said they wanted the changes in place as early as the 2016-17 year.

"It's important that every voice be heard," said Porter, who indicated that she spent the weekend talking and responding to concerned students, parents and community members.

Hargens said the district will now reconstitute the magnet school steering committee to include external stakeholders and revise the timeline before any proposal is brought to the board for approval.

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.

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.

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,” said Bob Rodosky, executive director of data management, planning and program evaluation for JCPS.

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

The petition 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.”

“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.

Jackson said JCPS needs to keep Manual as a selective school in order to maintain choices for families.

“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.”

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

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