HAZLE TWP. — Students have circulated petitions, school board members have offered conflicting proposals and administrators suspect it’s all based on misunderstandings.
Mind you, the problem at the heart of recent debates in Hazleton Area School District — not enough room at the new Academy of Sciences to enroll all the eligible and interested students — “is a good problem to have,” Superintendent Francis Antonelli said.
But talk of filling 125 freshman seats either exclusively by admission score results or by lottery suggest the screening process has been misinterpreted, Antonelli and Assistant Principal Marie Ernst said.
For starters, Ernst said, while the application process results in a single numeric score from zero to 100, “one thing we have to be clear about is that those scores are not grades.”
The academy, a new school opened in Butler Township last fall that focuses on “STEM” subjects (science, technology, engineering and math), looks at grades, teacher recommendations, an essay requirement and other measures, Ernst said. It is the first public high school with a specific focus in Northeastern Pennsylvania.
Even when it comes to measuring the more amorphous skills such as ability to work in groups, “we have rubrics that make it a lot less subjective,” she added.
Controversy arose when Ernst told the school board recently that there are about 330 applicants seeking 125 slots for incoming freshman. School Board President Robert Wallace suggested a random drawing among eligible students to decide who gets in. Other members suggested raising the requirements to winnow the field.
Dominick Kirk, 16, a student body representative for the school, said the lottery idea is “absurd.” In letters to the editor he has argued such a system shows top scoring students that hard work doesn’t pay.
The board is expected to vote on an admission policy at tonight’s meeting, Antonelli said, and the administration’s proposal is a hybrid of merit selection and random drawing.
The 125-student limit is non-negotiable, Antonelli said: There’s no physical space for more. Of the approximately 330 applicants, he said 175 qualified for admission with a score of 85 or better in the application process.
The administration proposes filling 84 slots by taking the top 12 students from each of the district’s seven middle schools.
The district also gets applications from students not enrolled in district schools, and would admit the top nine from that pool. That would leave 32 slots available, to be filled by a random drawing from the remaining 82 eligible candidates, Antonelli said.
Ernst noted taking the top 12 from each middle school is not the same as taking the 84 highest scorers. She cited application scores from two schools: At one, the top 12 scorers hit between 85 to 96 points. At another, the range was 95 to 100.
By picking the top 12 from each school, the district is still admitting eligible students but also creating an academy enrollment that reflects the district’s population, Ernst said.
The random drawing for the last 32 slots provides a “a second chance” for those who weren’t selected through the first rounds, Antonelli said.
The stiff screening process is justified by the level of course work offered at the academy, both said. Students get a lot of hands-on experience working in groups, with an emphasis on honors and Advanced Placement courses.
College courses taught by professors from area institutions are available to all in the school who can handle the work, including ninth-grade students, Ernst added.
Despite the tough curriculum — or maybe because of it — Ernst noted demand is high. Students can only leave the academy in the first two weeks of a semester or when the semester ends.
This year, 16 students decided to go back to Hazleton Area High School after classes at the academy had begun, but 25 additional students were admitted.
Antonelli said he’s hoping once the plan is made clear, the controversy will subside.
“This approach was what we were proposing all along,” he said. “I don’t know how things got misinterpreted.