Over the years, Benjamin Franklin High School's selective admissions policies have provoked plenty of controversy and debate. 

But while the school has made it challenging to get in, officials are proud to say that the school has never shut out anyone who qualifies. If prospective students make the grade, and they live in Orleans Parish, they can attend.

As more students apply and are accepted to the prestigious high school, its open-ended enrollment policy has in recent years forced leaders to find creative solutions for accommodating growth.

Franklin welcomed the largest student body in its 61-year history this fall, requiring for the second year in a row that overflow classes move next door to the University of New Orleans campus, and necessitating the hiring of new faculty and staff.

Anticipating further expansion, school officials are planning to add several new buildings and classrooms to Franklin's campus as part of an 11-year, $70 million makeover that will ultimately serve up to 1,200 students — or about 200 more than attend Franklin now. If enrollment swells beyond that number, officials say they'll turn to UNO again.

"I hope that Franklin never has to have a cap" on enrollment, Dr. Patrick Widhalm, Franklin's head of school, said Friday as he showed off the school's master plan for capital improvements. "The minute we do, we have a lottery, and the minute we have a lottery, we have happy people and we have sad people."

The growing student body and plans for a bigger facility are good news for a school that's already gotten accolades this year. The Louisiana Department of Education recently cited Ben Franklin as the most "outstanding" school in the greater New Orleans region, a designation based on newly released data measuring individual student growth from one year to the next.

As Franklin students continue to excel, the number of students applying for admission has grown, a trend that reflects the growth in parish population as well as parents exploring Franklin as an option to more expensive private and parochial schools, Widhalm said.

The school received 834 applications this year, a 44 percent jump from the number received in 2012, according to Widhalm. Of the number who applied for this school year, 40 percent qualified.

Lynn Jenkins, the school's director of admissions, said marketing — including yard signs, billboards and individual school tours — has also played a role in the school's increasing popularity. 

Altogether, Ben Franklin's four classes this year include 1,002 students, 280 of them new to the school. Of the new arrivals, 240 are ninth-graders, officials said. The school accepts incoming sophomores and juniors, too.

Total enrollment is now 14 percent higher than it was five years ago.

Range of backgrounds

“Their test scores skew toward the high end of the curve, and they represent a remarkable range of ethnicities, races, socioeconomic groups and educational backgrounds," Jenkins added in a news release touting the numbers.

Last fall, according to state figures, 38 percent of Franklin students were white, 30 percent were black, and 17 percent were Asian, with the remainder of other ethnic origins, including Hispanic, American Indian and Pacific Islander.

Most of the students this year came to Franklin from other Orleans Parish schools — from 44 different public schools and 18 private schools, and from every ZIP code in the city, Widhalm said.

Franklin this year also accepted four home-schooled students and 26 kids who moved into Orleans Parish from elsewhere, including six other Louisiana parishes, 10 states and two foreign countries.

To meet its growing needs, Franklin this year hired seven new faculty members — two for math, two for science and one each for social studies, English and music. The school has also hired two new staff members and has moved its custodial crew from contract to staff.

Moving forward, the school's expansion will include a separate STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts and Mathematics) campus, including a three-story classroom building and an outdoor classroom and courtyard.

Officials are looking for bond funding for the new addition, to be built adjacent to the existing facility on Leon C. Simon Drive and to cost an estimated $16 million, Widhalm said. Once the money is secured, construction could take two years.

The STEAM campus is the second of four planned phases of construction that will take at least 11 years to complete and cost about $70 million. Officials also envision a three-story academic common space, a new courtyard with an amphitheater, a new gymnasium and athletic addition with classrooms, and another academic building housing a possible "ninth-grade center" for freshmen.

The first phase, including a series of athletic improvements such as new concessions and renovated locker rooms, has already begun.

The plans mark big changes for a school that was housed in the historic but cramped Carrollton Courthouse in Riverbend until 1990, when the Orleans Parish School Board leased land from UNO to build a larger and more modern campus. 

"We are building a classroom capacity to have the kind of instructional space needed in subjects such as science, robotics and the arts," Widhalm said of the future plans. "Some subjects need more tools than others."

Designed for excellence

From the time it was founded in 1957, Franklin was designed as a public school for gifted students. The era saw the establishment of many similar schools across the nation: It was the height of the Cold War — the year of the Sputnik launch — and America was desperate to boost educational standards, in science and math in particular.

Franklin has long been regarded as one of the best schools in Louisiana, a reputation that preceded its status as a publicly funded charter school.

While Franklin has always been selective, its admissions policies have been tweaked over time.

The school once used the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test, which some considered to be an IQ test. Franklin's cutoff score was 120. In the 1990s, opponents said the test was culturally biased and accused the magnet school of having an admissions bias against African-Americans.

Now, freshmen and sophomores must score a total of 88 points out of a possible 120 on an admissions matrix that factors in scores from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills and grade-point average. Juniors must score at least 108 on the matrix, while all incoming students must have a minimum 2.0 GPA with no failing grades in any subject.

The admissions matrix is composed of 30 points each for test scores on reading, language and math, as well as another 30 for GPA, according to Eve Peyton, the school's marketing and communications coordinator.

Some critics have said that selective admissions have made things easy for Franklin administrators, and that school officials have historically not had to do much heavy lifting for students with academic challenges.

Over the years, Franklin has been recognized repeatedly in the U.S. Department of Education’s National Blue Ribbon Schools program, which honors schools for their academic excellence, and it has been featured on “Best High Schools” lists compiled by U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek and Business Week.

But while Franklin's admissions policies may largely account for its historically high test scores, they don't explain the improvement shown by students once they arrive. And that's the metric Franklin officials are especially proud of. This year, state officials said Franklin showed the most student growth of any school in the New Orleans region.

The state measures that statistic by benchmarking each student's LEAP test score against the previous year's score. Schools earn "top growth" when students show satisfactory improvement on math and English language arts assessments and/or outperform their peers on those tests statewide.

When they were released last week, the scores showed fewer than half of public school students in the New Orleans metro area are showing satisfactory academic growth.

There were bright spots, however, starting with Ben Franklin. Data showed 73 percent of the school's student body got "top growth" in math and English.

The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts also ranked high, with 66 percent of its students meeting the improvement criteria.

The other campuses in the top five in the New Orleans area — Patrick F. Taylor Science & Technology Academy, McDonogh 26/Homedale Elementary School and Washington Montessori — are all in Jefferson Parish.

Follow Della Hasselle on Twitter, @dellahasselle.