Students applying to popular JCPS schools face fierce competition

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- His essay has been written, his recommendation letters have been sent and his academic record has been submitted. Now, all Andrew Baker can do is sit and wait.

The eighth grader at Barret Traditional Middle School is one of more than 1,100 students who have applied for about 475 seats in duPont Manual High School's five magnet programs this fall. 

“I really hope I get in,” the 14-year-old says. “I don't want to go anywhere else.”

Like many others in Jefferson County Public Schools, Manual is in the middle of its most hectic season.

“This is by far the busiest time for us,” said Bob Rodosky, executive director of data management, planning and program evaluation for JCPS. “Schools have been sorting through applications submitted during the initial application period since mid-January and our goal is to get letters out to families by late February or early March.”

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.

“I would love to know how you really get into some of these schools,” said Samantha Wilson, whose daughter graduated from Ballard High last year after being denied entrance into Manual's High School University magnet as a freshman. “I definitely think there is a system of who you know.”

Many people, like Wilson, are critical of JCPS' selection process, saying that getting into some of the district's most popular schools can be as stressful and difficult as getting into college.

“Each of our schools has a certain number of seats and some schools get five times the number of applications,” Rodosky said. “So if the rejection rate is 4 out every 5 at a college, then that description is probably appropriate.”

The district 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.

Option One: Criteria-based selection

During a recent visit to Manual, admissions clerk Lisa Stevenson was busy sorting hundreds of completed application packets into five piles – one for each of the school's magnets: math, science and technology, journalism and communication, visual arts, High School University and the Youth Performing Arts School.

Of the 1,100 applications it has received for the 2015-16 year, the school only has about 475 seats it can fill. Manual uses the district's “criteria” process and officials say it's a matter of what a student knows – not who – that increases the likelihood of being admitted to the coveted school.

“I talk to so many parents every year that are very disappointed and I never question that frustration and disappointment because there are so many really strong, wonderful kids that we just don't have the room to take,” said Greg Kuhn, an assistant principal at Manual.

At Manual, a panel of teachers who sign confidentiality agreements is charged with going through the packets, which include test scores, middle school grades, essays, attendance records, teacher recommendations and an activities and interest survey.

“Every packet is looked at twice, sometimes even three times,” Kuhn said.

In addition, if applying to the school's visual arts magnet, students must submit a portfolio piece and if they are applying to the performing arts magnet, they must audition, Kuhn said.

Manual has an early review process for students in the math, science and technology magnet program at Meyzeek, Newburg and Farnsley middle schools, as well as the visual and performing art magnet programs at Noe and Western middle schools.

“Students in those programs have the opportunity to apply early and find out before winter break if they will be admitted,” Kuhn said.

Test scores matter, but it's not the only factor, he said.

WDRB News asked Kuhn: “Do you look at whether a student scores proficient, distinguished, apprentice or novice and determine whether or not they'll get into Manual by test score alone?”

“Test scores definitely matter, they are very important they are absolutely not a sole criteria in any way shape or form,” Kuhn said.

Ultimately, it is up to the panel of teachers from each magnet who select students – but like every other school, that selection must comply with the diversity guidelines that are part of the JCPS student assignment plan.

“This is a mandate we are proud to fulfill,” Kuhn said. “We want Manual to ‘look' like Louisville.”

That being said, Rodosky said that low-income children or those who are a minority do not have a better chance at getting into Manual or other popular magnet programs and schools than those who are not.

“You have almost the same chance…we can show you the statistics on that,” he said.

WDRB News asked: “So your diversity guidelines are not creating a benefit for one particular or two particular groups of kids?”

“No, no,” Rodosky replied.

Brandeis Elementary, a popular math, science and technology magnet school in the west end, also uses certain criteria to select students.

Option Two: 'Random draw' at traditional schools

There is no “feeder system” at Manual, like at the district's traditional schools, which start at an elementary school, feed into a middle school and then into a high school.

JCPS uses a random draw for students in its traditional pipeline, meaning all those who apply are entered into a computer and the district provides numbered lists the schools must follow to accept students. They get three lists, broken down by the diversity guidelines, to ensure they stay in compliance with the district's student assignment plan.

For students who do not get into the district's four elementary traditional schools – Greathouse/Shryock, Audubon, Carter or Schaffner by random draw, they are given the option of attending the traditional magnet program at Foster and Shelby elementary schools, Rodosky said.

“The four traditional elementary schools and the two traditional programs at Shelby and Foster all feed into Barret, JCTMS or Johnson,” he said. “If you are in the traditional pipeline and meet all of the requirements, those students then feed into Butler and Male.”

All students in the traditional pipeline are guaranteed a spot at the next level, Rodosky said. Those who have not been part of the traditional program can apply, but the number of available seats is limited.

“Over the past few years, only a handful of kids have come off the random draw list,” he said. “It's very hard to get in to Male or Butler if you have not been part of the traditional pipeline.”

District officials “constantly watch” the random draw lists at these schools to make sure the list is followed.

“Once a school is full, it stops at a certain point on the list,” he said. “And if a spot opens up, they continue on the list where they had left off.”

Siblings are not guaranteed a spot at any of the district's traditional schools, Rodosky said.

Option Three: ‘Random draw' and ‘criteria'

Other schools and magnet programs use both the random draw and criteria to select students who apply.

At The Brown School, a K-12 school in downtown Louisville, the district provides a random draw list of those who apply and then school officials go down the list in order and check off whether the students have met other specified criteria, Rodosky said.

Just like with the regular random draw criteria, the schools must contact families at least three different times in a variety of ways before moving on to the next name on the list.

And district officials also monitor this process daily.

“We will call the school if they are not following the list,” Rodosky said.

The waiting game

Back at Manual, students like Andrew Baker and Srirangan Iyer – an eighth grader at Noe Middle School – must wait and see if they make the cut.

Iyer, who plays the violin, recently auditioned at Manual, choosing a piece he's played for the past nine years. He said he hopes to attend the school because “arts are a very important part of my life.”

The 13-year-old said the entire process has been stressful.

“I'm nervous, but I hope I got in,” he said.

Baker, whose sister Ellie is a senior at Manual, is also hopeful.

“I felt like it would prepare me more for college, more than any other school really,” he said.

Ellie Baker concurs.

“It's been the best experience of my life,” she said. “I know wherever I go for college I'll be incredibly prepared.”

Their mother, Sheila Baker, says because no preference is given to siblings when it comes to acceptance at Manual, she knows Andrew may not get in.

“While I'm confident in his abilities I know there are a lot of other students who are also applying that are also very deserving of those spots, so it is a very nerve wracking process for me,” she said.

Kuhn said Manual never “takes for granted that kids want to be here.”

And he contends that none of the magnets are easier to get into than another.

“My advice? Really choose a magnet that fits your interest or passion,” Kuhn said.

Other 'great programs, schools' in JCPS

He and Rodosky also say they want to “reassure people” that while it can be disappointing if they don't get into Manual or another one of their top choices, there are other great programs in JCPS.

“The opportunities don't stop,” Kuhn said.

Rodosky said district officials often field calls from parents who are disappointed.

“We try to follow up with them and counsel them towards other options in the district,” he said. “We know that's it's tough for a kid to be rejected, but we only have a certain number of seats.”

Two years ago, Lainie Deetsch applied for the performing arts magnet at Manual. Her grades were excellent, her singing audition went well and she was highly recommended by teachers. She was crushed when she didn't get in.

“I thought it was the end of the world,” said Deetsch, who is now a sophomore at Eastern High.

“But it really turned out to be a blessing,” the 16-year-old said. “I've been able to work with a well-known producer and record a few songs. I spend a lot of time in the studio trying to become better. I don't think I would have had that same opportunity at Manual.”

Troy Kelly's son was not accepted to Manual's performing arts program last year. The problem he says with the selections process was not that his son didn't get in -- it was what happened afterwards.

"It's that they ask these kids to do a lot of work to apply to their school and then when they are not accepted they tell them in the rejection letter to not call the school," Kelly said. "I think the least they could do for these talented kids that don't make the cut is give them some feed back on why they didn't get in."

Kuhn said Manual is looking at ways to make the entire application process more user-friendly.

"We want to make the process easier -- the way people expect things to function in the 21st century," he said, nothing the school has used the same process for decades. 

District-wide changes coming soon

Meanwhile, JCPS is making changes and improvements to improve its overall student assignment process. 

The move comes after a recent review from the Magnet Schools of America, which recommended the district needs to standardize its application process. The changes include an updated registration site and automatic address verification, Rodosky said.

One of the district's next steps is for parents to log on to a redesigned website and see what the odds are that their kids will get into a particular school, based on the five factors the district considers when assigning students – parent choice, siblings, resides, diversity and capacity.

The district will pull together a few years of data to properly calculate odds. It also plans to hire an outside agency to survey parents and other community members about how the process works and how it can be improved, he said.

“These are things we are hoping to have in place next school year,” Rodosky said.

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

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