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Published in Print: June 10, 1998, as Houston Reaches for Diversity Without Quotas

Houston Reaches for Diversity Without Quotas

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Ask people what they think of this city's new policy on divvying up slots in public magnet programs, and just about everyone has a story--or at least an opinion.

Take Billie Cater, the mother of two daughters who are avid dancers, actresses, and musicians. As she helped host a spring teacher-appreciation luncheon at Johnston Middle School recently, Ms. Cater recalled the day a half-dozen years ago when her older daughter was rejected from the school's magnet program for the performing arts because there were no more slots for whites.

"I had always taught them that we're all created equal and that they could do anything they wanted if they worked hard," Ms. Cater said. "Then that happened, and I didn't know what to say. I lost 10 pounds in a week because I couldn't sleep."

To Ms. Cater, the district's recent decision to scrap its system of racial and ethnic quotas in magnet school admissions was long overdue. "The old system was very unfair to whites," she said.

Across town at Jones High School, home to the city's magnet program for academically gifted students in grades 9-12, Principal Paralee Crawford is taking a more guarded view.

Ms. Crawford thinks of the African-American senior who was the school's valedictorian last year. Without the admissions targets, she said, he would probably never have been admitted to the district's Vanguard program for gifted students.

"He did not test well," she said. "We let him in on faith that he was going to be able to handle it. And he did."

Suit Challenges Quotas

The policy change that pleases Ms. Cater and worries Ms. Crawford has its roots in a lawsuit brought a year ago by a group of white and Asian-American families after their children were rejected from Vanguard programs at various schools.

The plaintiffs argued that their children had been passed over in favor of less qualified applicants because of the district's quota system, which aimed to achieve a ratio in every program of 65 percent blacks and Hispanics to 35 percent students of other groups. The quotas had originally been set as part of a desegregation case that ended in 1989.

Edward J. Blum, the chairman of the Houston-based Campaign for a Color-Blind America, said his group supported the suit out of a conviction that the set-asides amount to unconstitutional racial discrimination. "It's saying that all black or Hispanic people have elements that are interchangeable," Mr. Blum said.

The suit prompted school leaders to appoint a task force to review admissions procedures not just for the Vanguard programs but also for all magnet schools in the 212,000-student district. Vanguard programs serve roughly 5,000 of the system's 36,000 magnet students, most of whom are admitted without having to meet stringent criteria.

Just days before the case was slated for trial in federal court last fall, the school board decided to drop the quotas. Policymakers ultimately decided to continue to give blacks and Hispanics a slight leg up in the Vanguard process--but only if they come from poor families.

Under the new system, such children get three extra points out of a possible 108 in a rating system that considers grades, test scores, interviews, and parent and student questionnaires, as well as such obstacles to success as poverty, lack of fluency in English, and disabilities.

Admissions Patterns Shift

Admission to other magnet programs is now done through lotteries that don't take race into account. Before the lawsuit, those programs, too, had been subject to the 65-35 targets.

As a result of the revised policy, admissions patterns appear to be shifting.

In elementary and middle school Vanguard programs, for example, 59 percent of students this year were black or Hispanic. Among students accepted for the coming year as of February--the latest figures available--that ratio had flip-flopped, with just 41 percent coming from those groups and 59 percent from others.

In the district as a whole, more than 85 percent of students are classified as Hispanic or black.

School officials say they expect the Vanguard numbers to change in the future as they intensify their efforts to bring more blacks and Hispanics into the magnet programs for the gifted. Those steps include a new policy of testing all kindergartners and 5th graders for possible giftedness instead of only those referred by parents or teachers.

"We're analyzing our criteria to see if there's something that is screening out minorities," said Cyndi Boyd, the district's director of advanced academics. "We knew it would not be perfect this year. But we feel very committed to the avenue we are pursuing."

The quality and diversity that Ms. Boyd and other administrators are hoping to preserve was on full display recently in Yvonne Turung's 5th grade Vanguard class at the T.H. Rogers School.

Justin Moore and Andrew Gilmore, both 11-year-old African-Americans, eagerly pointed out features of their highly organized, ethnically eclectic classroom, bubbling about activities and field trips and a four-day outdoor-adventure camp.

"We can't wait till next year," said Andrew enthusiastically. "And in 7th and 8th grades, it gets even better!"

Vol. 17, Issue 39, Page 11

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Web Resources
  • See 1996-97 snapshot data for the Houston school district, from the Texas Education Agency.
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