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Milwaukee Will Let High Schools Pick Their Students

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Starting next fall, all Milwaukee public high schools will be allowed to become pickier about which students they admit, under a controversial policy change the school board approved last week.

The board voted 5-4 to let all 16 high schools set admissions standards and choose among students based on their academic records, attendance, behavior, and compatibility with the school's academic focus.

Last week's action came two months after board members approved specific admissions criteria for the city's two most popular college-preparatory high schools, Rufus King and Riverside. Selection standards at those schools, which each have lengthy waiting lists, will also take effect in the 1998-99 school year.

Supporters of letting all schools become more selective say it will help fill the city's specialized and college-prep programs with motivated students. They predict the change will help stem the flow of middle-class families to suburban and private schools by increasing the chances that qualified students will get their first choice of a high school.

"We want schools that have a focus to be able to set some standards," said Leon Todd, a board member who supported the change. "Just simply mouthing the words of high standards is creating more of a problem for us because we're losing our credibility."

Two-Tiered System Seen

Opponents counter that the new system will make some schools dumping grounds for low-achieving students and put nonwhite students at a disadvantage. Enrollment in the 103,000-student district is approximately 80 percent nonwhite and 60 percent African-American.

The Milwaukee branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Milwaukee Urban League are among the groups strongly opposed to the change.

"This is an attempt to resegregate the schools, either by race or class," said Jerry Ann Hamilton, the youth council adviser for the Milwaukee NAACP.

An earlier version of the new policy, which the board amended before last week's vote, had called for using students' grade point averages as the chief admissions criterion.

Under the existing system, schools with more applicants for admission than places available choose students by lottery.

District officials say all students will continue to have a place in the district, even if they are turned down by all the schools they choose.

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