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A Letter from Superintendent Sanders about Magnet Academy Admissions

Sept. 25, 2020

Equity and access.  Are they just buzzwords, or will we really take the steps necessary to address the inequities that persist across our district, our state, and our nation?  I ask that in all seriousness.

In order to truly address inequities, we must first acknowledge that we have built systems, and perpetuate systems, that marginalize some groups of students. Our Board of Education acknowledged this by passing an Equity Policy, which has guided much of our work, including the discussions over these past few years regarding our high school academy programs.  One of the mandates in our Board policy is to “remedy any practices that lead to under-representation of students of color in programs such as gifted programs, honors academies, and advanced placement courses.”

We began working in late 2017 to review our high school academies.  We conducted audits using an outside firm.  Several findings about our academies were positive, but several negative findings stood out.  One was the lack of both consistent student admissions criteria across all five high schools and curriculum integration once students were admitted to programs.  The audit also confirmed our own concern that much of the same coursework that is supposed to be unique to the academies is also openly accessible to students in our high schools.  As we have worked to make changes, we have also worked to keep our communities informed through five updates to the Board and multiple townhall sessions on our rollout of Educational Pathways as well a shift to Magnet Academies.

Let me note that the new magnet academy selection process aligns to the pillars of the Magnet Schools of America, supporting each school’s work toward earning national certification. 

On September 14, we presented to the Board our updated Magnet Academy selection process.  The process removes several barriers that have historically been in place, including testing and auditions for some programs.  Our universal process will require 8th graders wanting to apply to have two letters of recommendation and have a minimum 2.0 grade point average.  One element of the magnet lottery admissions process that we have adjusted based on Board and community feedback is in regards to program participation.  We now will accept any coursework, extracurricular activity or community-based programming that aligns to the theme of the magnet academy for which the students are applying (in other words, our list of eligible participation programs will not be limited as was presented originally).

I’d like to take a few minutes to dispel some of the myths about what we are really changing.  The first is that students who do not meet the academic expectations of the past will be admitted (like, how can a student with a 2.0 GPA possibly handle this rigor?).  You need to know that for years and years, every student in U-46 has had access to Advanced Placement and Project Lead the Way courses (the cornerstones of Elgin High and Bartlett High academies) without any GPA requirements.  The difference for the Academy programs is that students lucky enough to gain admission get to travel their high school career together as a cohort, experience the courses in a prescribed sequence, and may have the opportunity to attend school in a different community. 

Similarly, a student who attends Larkin High has the opportunity to engage in chorus, wind ensemble, orchestra, etc. even if the student does not attend the Academy.  Any student can participate regardless of GPA or background in music.  The school’s theater productions are open to all students, not just those in the Visual and Performing Arts Academy.  The only difference is that students have a block of time together for additional practice and community building.

Will the demographics of our academy programs change overnight?  No, that is not likely.  We need to work to provide more support and opportunities for students at earlier grades.  However, if we all believe that all students in U-46 should have access to programs, and if we believe that every child will rise to the level of our expectations, then why would we perpetuate a system that we have identified as an artificial barrier for some children, particularly students of color? 

All my best,