Sci-tech school courts minorities

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The Pittsburgh Public Schools' new science and technology magnet won't open until next fall, but the school's inaugural experiment -- involving enrollment, not chemistry or physics -- soon will get under way.

Officials hope to attract a significant number of minority students to the school -- and help address the nation's under-representation of minorities in science fields -- while respecting a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that struck down race-based enrollment policies in Seattle and Jefferson County, Ky.

Instead of reserving up to half of the new school's seats for minority students, the traditional practice at city magnets, the district has designed a "weighted lottery" that's intended to promote diversity without giving anyone an edge explicitly because of race. Registration begins Nov. 1.

In Pittsburgh, 14 schools are totally magnets and 13 neighborhood schools contain magnet programs. Because of the ruling, the school board Wednesday directed administrators to develop new enrollment criteria for magnets districtwide for the 2010-11 year.

The sci-tech school is on a different schedule. If successful, the sci-tech lottery, to be used to assemble a student body for school's fall 2009 opening, could be a model for other magnets' procedures.

To be located at the Frick building in Oakland, the sci-tech school will be one of about 100 secondary schools specializing in science nationwide.

A "Dream. Discover. Design" curriculum will require each student to specialize in one of four fields and work with industry, academia or civic groups to solve science problems. A balanced enrollment likely will be viewed as one indicator of a successful school launch.

Industries want schools to push more minority students into science.

Two weeks ago, Bayer Corp. released results of a survey of Fortune 1000 companies involved in STEM -- science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- fields.

About 95 of the 100 Fortune 1000 executives surveyed said they were concerned about an overall shortage of STEM talent, with 55 saying they already were experiencing the shortage at their own companies. Diversity was a special concern, with 89 executives reporting a scarcity of women and minorities in their fields and 82 citing under-representation at their companies.

The sci-tech school will open with 250 students in grades six through nine and eventually grow to 550 students in grades six through 12. Students may enter at grades six or nine.

Principal Daniel Lentz said an aggressive outreach effort is crucial to assembling a diverse pool of applicants.

To that end, the district Wednesday will launch a school Web site at www.pghscitech.net and mail postcards to district families promoting the school and registration process. Information sessions will be held at 6 p.m. Oct. 8 at the Carnegie Library in Homewood, at noon Oct. 11 at Carnegie Science Center on the North Shore and at 6 p.m. Oct. 16 at district offices in Oakland.

The sci-tech school and other magnets will accept applications from Nov. 1 to Dec. 10. The sci-tech school will debut its weighted lottery the week of Dec. 17, and other magnets that week will use the traditional lottery -- a random drawing -- if demand for seats at any school exceeds availability.

The sci-tech lottery will give all applicants at least one chance at admission. Applicants would get one additional chance for each of the following: qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches, scoring proficient on the state math and reading tests, scoring in the top half of their classes on the math test or having a school attendance rate higher than 90 percent.

Applicants seeking to enter at ninth grade also would receive one additional chance for having attended special STEM programs at Pittsburgh Carmalt PreK-8 or Pittsburgh Lincoln K-8. The schools' populations are 45 percent and 98 percent black, respectively.

Sci-tech schools have a solid record of propelling students into STEM careers, according to a report last year by the National Consortium for Specialized Secondary Schools of Mathematics, Science and Technology.

But some of the schools have a difficult time recruiting minorities, said Brenda Earhart, a consortium board member and director of the Kalamazoo Area Mathematics and Science Center in Michigan.

About 295 high school students from the metropolitan area attend half-day classes at her school. She's proud that 51 percent are girls but unhappy that only 9 percent are black.

Dr. Earhart said budget constraints have hampered outreach in minority neighborhoods. But she said the school's design -- it's geared to higher-performing students -- also has been an impediment to diversity.

Because they don't plan to accept only top-performers, Pittsburgh officials have planned a special advising process, other academic supports and flexible scheduling to help students pull through.

But make no mistake, officials said, the school will be rigorous. That's why graduates will get an honors diploma.


Joe Smydo can be reached at jsmydo@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1548.


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