The superintendent of Columbus schools has made merit a factor in the district's 30-year-old lottery, which was created in part to give students an equal shot at getting into popular programs.

Superintendent Gene Harris has reserved 100 freshman seats at two top alternative high schools next year for eighth-graders with at least a 3.0 grade-point average.

District officials said the change rewards students with good grades and helps ensure that those admitted to Columbus Alternative High School and Eastmoor Academy are prepared for the college-preparatory programs.

Harris said it's a trial program that, if successful, will be used at Fort Hayes Arts and Academic High School to admit students with artistic talent.

The change did not require public discussion or a school-board vote, under the board policy that gives Harris wide latitude to run the district. Harris said she is responding to studies that say that school districts don't provide as many special opportunities for students at the top of their class as for those who struggle.

"So we are trying to make sure we provide the broad spectrum of opportunities for everyone," she said. The district held an early lottery for 124 students who applied for merit-based admission to CAHS and Eastmoor. All who applied to Eastmoor got in.

More than half who applied to CAHS made it. By comparison, in the general lottery, students have about a one-in-four shot of joining the schools' next freshman classes: 150 at Eastmoor and 125 at CAHS.

To qualify for the early lottery, students also had to score at the 90th percentile or higher on their most recent standardized test or be officially designated as "gifted and talented." The district's lottery system has undergone changes since it was started in the late 1970s to create diverse alternative schools.

But administrators have largely avoided merit, auditions and other preferences, to maintain an equal-opportunity system. Some parents at CAHS said the open lottery compromised the school's culture as academically challenging.

The school has faced a growing problem with students who "couldn't keep up with the rigor and sometimes didn't want to be there," said PTA President Penny Winkle. She thinks the selective lottery will help the school retain high academic standards while maintaining a diverse student body.