When the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an article citing a change in the admissions criteria for magnet schools (an idea that Superintendent Ackerman later declared "dead"), a friend remarked that such a change was another step towards driving Philadelphia parents to the burbs. I respectfully beg to differ.
You see, I am exactly the kind of student who once benefitted from a similar rule. When I was in junior high, I was at the top of my class at a poor school. I was excited to apply to a magnet school - but my excitement quickly faded when I met some of the other applicants. Those applicants, from the more affluent schools, talked at length about the tutors that their parents hired for them to take admissions tests. I was immediately intimidated.
Those same applicants exchanged stories about school programs where they learned Latin, pre-calculus and physics (in junior high). Many had extensive arts programs with such cool offerings as photography and screen printing. They played a variety of sports including lacrosse (something I'd never heard of before) and field hockey. I couldn't figure out - except for the prestige - why they would ever want to leave their own schools for the magnet school.
These kids were mostly concentrated in a handful of elite schools. You know the type.
My school didn't offer those kinds of alternatives. We had one established foreign language (Spanish) and the school was trying its hand at offering French (it was not going well). There were only a handful of sports - and even then, only the kids with money could play since students had to buy their own uniforms and equipment. There was no established art or music program, except for high school band. Band was really just an option if you didn't want to take shop or home ec.
I wanted to go to the magnet school because I wanted to be exposed to the kinds of things those kids in the "good" schools were already being exposed to. I felt like I was at a major disadvantage because my resume was not nearly as impressive as these uber kids. I assumed that I couldn't compete. I did, however, have one advantage: the magnet school that I wanted to attend was publicly funded and, as a result, was required to spread their acceptance across a range of schools. My test scores were as good as everybody else's but my resume (and the resumes of kids in schools just like mine) were a little bare. But the combination of test scores, essays, interview and yes, geography, ensured that I got in.
Might I have gotten in if I had lived somewhere else? Maybe - we'll never know. Do I consider that an unfair advantage? Not at all. It was more about the disadvantages that I had in comparison.
I quickly learned that I deserved to be at my new school. I loved it and went on to do well, earning accolades along the way. After high school, I went on to attend college (on scholarship) and grad school. It is, for me, a happy story. And that's not a "yaay me!" It's a "yaay opportunity!"
We all know that schools are not created equal. While we tend to compare Philly schools with suburban schools, that statement is true enough on its own inside the city. And that disparity needs to be accounted for somehow - magnet schools are just one piece of that equation.
To clarify, I'm not insinuating that magnet schools should pull kids from under-performing schools for the sake of doing so. I'm also not saying that I necessarily believe in strict quotas or charity cases. But I do believe in alternative entrance criteria, so long as it's evenly and intelligently enforced. It's a mistake to assume that you can identify the City's very best students by simply looking at a test score or a bell curve. The ability - and the eagerness - to learn are often bigger than numbers.