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Peggy Kemp (left), headmaster at Fenway High School, with Lisa Pritsoulis-Ewick, an intern, said students admitted to the pilot school have diverse academic abilities, but all are motivated to attend.
Peggy Kemp (left), headmaster at Fenway High School, with Lisa Pritsoulis-Ewick, an intern, said students admitted to the pilot school have diverse academic abilities, but all are motivated to attend. (David L. Ryan/ Globe Staff)

Pilot schools setting more hurdles

Original mission skewed, some say

Most of Boston's experimental pilot high schools, held up as a national model and acclaimed for outperforming traditional public schools, have quietly created admissions hurdles that call into question whether they are stacking the deck with the most successful students.

The pilot high schools, run by the public school system, often demand student transcripts, teacher recommendations, and essays from applicants, practices more common in private schools, a Globe review of admissions policies has found.

Boston's superintendent and others say the hurdles fly in the face of the pilot schools' original purpose, which was to show that given more freedom in budgeting, teaching, and hiring, they could produce higher test scores with the same pool of students. The goal was to have traditional Boston public schools then replicate the success.

Regular school principals who accept any student who walks in the door say the pilots' admissions criteria infuriates them, given how a recent study hailed pilot schools' superior test scores and college-going rates. And, cities around the state and the nation, including Los Angeles, are creating pilots because of Boston's success.

"I think it's unfair, obviously," said Michael Fung, headmaster at Charlestown High School. "If you allow us to get rid of 25 percent of our kids, I can assure you I'd do a much better job than I am."

Superintendent Michael G. Contompasis said he is concerned about the perception that pilot schools are picking the best students and ordered them in recent years to stop reviewing transcripts and to phase out other requirements. Some headmasters continue to resist, insisting that they use the information to better understand students' needs and that they do not screen for the highest achievers.

State education officials, who last year proposed modeling four failing schools around the state after Boston's high-scoring pilot schools, said they were unaware of the pilots' admissions requirements and would ban the four schools from using them.

"Pilot and charter schools are doing a really good job with urban kids, but we shouldn't be comparing them to regular schools because they're educating kids who aren't exactly the same," said Ellen Guiney , executive director of Boston Plan for Excellence. "The kids farthest behind are not in the pilot schools."

The majority of Boston's pilot high schools enroll far fewer failing students than regular schools, according to a new study by Boston Plan for Excellence, a nonprofit that works with the city to improve schools.

In the 2005-06 school year, 27 percent of pilot schools' ninth - graders scored in the bottom quartile on their eighth - grade math MCAS exam, compared with 44 percent of freshmen at regular high schools.

Similar concerns have been raised about charter schools' admission policies. Eighteen of the state's 62 charter schools, generally overseen by the state and run by parents, teachers, and others, also have admissions requirements.

Some require parents to attend information meetings or students to submit an essay before entering a lottery for admission. One charter school has parents sign a statement acknowledging that they are "expected" to donate money to the school.

With charter schools, the effect of admissions criteria is unclear. The state has not studied the backgrounds of charter school students, and schools with admissions requirements are a mix of high- and low- achieving schools. Charters generally serve fewer special education and limited-English students, whether or not they have admissions requirements.

Charter school officials point out that there is no evidence that their policies lead to choosing more higher achievers. They said they use meetings to boost parental involvement and request essays to learn more about students, not to judge them. Parents have multiple chances to attend a meeting , and many charter schools make exceptions for incomplete applications.

"It's certainly not in the spirit of weeding people out," said Paul Niles , associate director of Cape Cod Lighthouse Charter School , which requires a parent meeting and three writing samples. "I tell them, you could sound like Albert Einstein in this discussion or you could bark at me like a dog and it has absolutely no bearing on it. The last thing we want to be is elitist."

Education Commissioner David P. Driscoll said he would review charter schools' admissions procedures to make sure they avoid screening, but said he has not received complaints.

Driscoll said charters cannot screen students by academics or skills but the state allows mandatory parent meetings to increase parental involvement. He said that essays are permissible if they are not used to filter students and that it is still fair to compare test scores if the focus is on the rate of improvement.

"We've never claimed that the students who attend charter schools would be similar to a random sample of all kids. That's not the case," he said. "In every instance for a charter school student there was a proactive step taken by an adult to at least get [the students] to apply."

Charter and pilot schools opened in 1995 to give parents more choices. They have hundreds of students on waiting lists. Charter schools, created under the Education Reform Act of 1993, are controversial because they are free from rules from the teachers' union, get money from school systems for their students, and like pilots, are often compared with regular schools. Admission is supposed to be by lottery -- and is in most charters.

Boston, with cooperation from the teachers' union, opened pilot schools to compete with charter schools. School officials said they expected most of the city's 20 pilot schools to enroll students the same way as other city schools. The elementary and middle pilot schools do not have special admissions.

But eight of the city's 10 pilot high schools have set their own admissions criteria. Only two have permission to do so -- Arts Academy, which requires an audition, and the grade 6-12 Quincy Upper School, which takes students from one elementary school.

Both Fenway High and Health Careers Academy require students to write an essay, provide a transcript and two letters of recommendation, and attend an information session.

The principals say the steps help ensure student and parent commitment, and regular schools should consider using their model.

Health Careers Academy headmaster Albert Holland said all applicants are entered into a lottery. Fenway headmaster Peggy Kemp said school officials divide the applicants by race, gender, and academic grades and pick a representative number from each pile.

"We make sure that we have students who have Ds and Fs on their report cards, but they're motivated to come to this school," Kemp said.

Last fall, the state cited Boston Community Leadership Academy as an example for four low-scoring schools because the pilot had improved dramatically since it was created in 2002 out of a former failing school.

The school's original admissions requirements included report cards, a student essay, and a parent interview, said headmaster Nicole Bahnam. Students were accepted on a first-come basis, not on the merits of their transcripts, she said.

"We had to do something to change people's perception of our school, so we created an application process," she said.

Bahnam said she stopped asking students for their grades this year on the superintendent's orders. But she still requires essays and interviews, hoping the process will inspire unmotivated students.

Keyla Veloz, 17, said the school's extensive application process allowed teachers to get to know her, but discouraged some of her classmates from applying.

Teachers at Another Course to College, a pilot high school, debated having special admissions but decided against it, said Gerald Howland, the recently retired headmaster.

"It would eliminate kids who have poor transcripts because they think there's no point in them applying," Howland said.

And the Los Angeles school system, which will open 10 pilot high schools by 2009, has prohibited all from having special admissions.

"We wanted to avoid this perception of selectivity," said Dan French , executive director of the Roxbury-based Center for Collaborative Education, which supports pilot schools.

The president of Boston Teachers Union vows to veto future pilot schools that plan to have selective admissions.

Most charter schools did not establish admissions requirements, largely to avoid shutting students out.

A Fitchburg charter eliminated its required essay in January because enrollment was low. Boston Collegiate Charter School and others discussed having admissions requirements, but rejected the idea.

"We essentially don't want to end up filtering for families that might be more engaged than others," said Kathleen Sullivan, executive director of Boston Collegiate. "We want to be truly public in that sense."

For an online listing of individual Boston high schools, visit

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at and Tracy Jan at