Equity & Diversity

Selective High Schools Struggle to Diversify Enrollments

By Caralee J. Adams — May 19, 2015 7 min read
Jeremy Butler (seated), a senior at the Pre-Collegiate STEM Academy at Middleton High School in Tampa, Fla., works on a coding project with teacher Floyd Roberts.
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To make the competitive Pre-Collegiate STEM Academy at Middleton High School reflect the economic and racial diversity of her urban district in Tampa, Fla., Principal Kim D. Moore says it takes a concerted effort.

That means going to elementary schools with robotics clubs and inviting middle school students in to practice with the high school mathematics team. By exposing children to extra activities they could not otherwise afford, Ms. Moore hopes they will develop a love of math and science and picture themselves in her academy.

“When a student applies at the 9th grade level, that’s too late,” said Ms. Moore, who is trying to get more students from low-income families and underrepresented minority groups into the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics program from the regular school that shares space in the same building. “We really need to identify students in elementary and encourage them and nurture them so when they get to the high school level, they are prepared and can be successful.”

Achieving racial and economic diversity has long been a challenge for selective high schools. While the percentage of white and high-income students scoring at the highest levels on the National Assessment of Educational Progress is increasing, underrepresented minorities and low-income students have not made the same gains.

The so-called “excellence gap” has gotten renewed attention because of new research, including studies by the Education Trust, an advocacy think tank in Washington, showing that students of color and low-income students who are academically talented often lose ground as they progress through school without adequate support.

Strategies for Diversity

With the push to get more disadvantaged students into college and a newer focus on the problem of “undermatching” (when qualified underrepresented students do not choose the most selective colleges available to them), new efforts are emerging to help all students reach their potential. For instance, a $100 million initiative spearheaded by the Seattle-based Equal Opportunity Schools was announced in late April to encourage underrepresented students to enroll in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses. The project will use grades and surveys to identify students with the ability to excel in advanced courses and offer encouragement to enroll.

Another strategy is to ramp up outreach and change policies to get more low-income, high-achieving students into academically competitive high schools. In February, the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation brought together about 100 principals from selective, specialized high schools for a meeting to discuss how to raise awareness and improve the pipeline of students for competitive schools. (The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation also supports coverage of low-income, high-achieving students in Education Week.)

At the gathering, the Lansdowne, Va.-based scholarship organization launched the new Coalition of Leaders for Advanced Student Success—or CLASS—to advocate for low-income, high-performing students.

“As a coalition, when you bring that many schools together, there is power in our voices as a collective,” said Ms. Moore, who is a member of the CLASS steering committee. “Now, we can have a national platform.”

See Also

Unmet Promises is an occasional series examining the challenges facing disadvantaged students who show academic potential.

Unmet Promises: High-Achieving, Low-Income Students

As new education policy is being drafted, the needs of disadvantaged children with high potential should be brought to the attention of lawmakers, said Harold O. Levy, the executive vice president of the foundation. “It’s our job to get the message out,” he told participants at the meeting. “Compared to rich kids in the top quartile, poor kids miss out at every level in every way.”

Ben Mackey, the principal of the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas, said having a more diverse student population enriches all students.

“We need to develop youth who seek out opinions with those who don’t share their same backgrounds,” he said.

Although his school cannot explicitly recruit based on race or income, Mr. Mackey has gone into area middle schools to talk up the magnet school, and two years ago, the application process was revised to attract a wider array of students. Rather than requiring students to submit a resume, the school held in-person interviews to draw out students’ passion and excitement, said Mr. Mackey.

The recruiting and admissions changes led applications to shoot up 100 percent in two years—most were from low-income schools. All students in the freshman and sophomore classes are from the city of Dallas this school year, compared with 30 percent two years ago, when students were brought in from the suburbs and out of state to fill open slots.

In New York City, students are chosen for specialized public high schools based solely on an admissions test. While defenders say it is an objective, straightforward system, girls, Latinos, and black students are underrepresented in the school system’s elite academies.

For example, in 2013, at the three largest specialized high schools, 64 percent of incoming 9th graders were Asian, and 22 percent were white, while just 4 percent were black and 5 percent were Latino. Citywide that same year, in comparison, 17 percent of incoming 9th graders were Asian, 13 percent were white, 28 percent were black, and 40 percent were Latino.

Beyond Testing

Research by Sean Patrick Corcoran, an associate professor of education economics at New York University, suggests that if the criterion was not only test scores but also grades and attendance, the demographic mix of the schools would be more diverse without significantly lowering the academic levels of incoming students.

“The [admissions] exam is only one dimension of achievement … one test, taken on one weekend day in October, that can be heavily influenced by test prep that only some students can afford,” said Mr. Corcoran. “As a result, while highly talented, the incoming class consists mainly of students who have shown they can master this one test.”

The admission testing requirement is spelled out in state law dating back to 1971, and attempts to broaden the selection criteria have failed in the legislature. Opponents to the changes, including many alumni, argue that widening the selection criteria could effectively lower the admissions standards.

To diversify in other ways, Mr. Corcoran said some schools, like Ms. Moore’s STEM Academy, are trying to identify high-achieving students early so the students are aware of the opportunities at the elite schools and can prepare for the admissions test.

Bard High School Early College, a public school in the New York borough of Queens, receives about 3,000 applications each year for 150 spots in the freshman class. The selection committee reviews students’ grades, attendance records, math and writing assessments, and motivation in an interview. What the school does not have access to in its decision: income status.

Valeri Thomson, the principal of Bard, would like to see that policy changed so the school could give additional consideration to low-income students and provide support as needed. Now, about half the students in her school qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and will be the first in their families to go to college.

Spreading the Word

Selective schools are not always on the radar of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, so Bard sends representatives into low-income neighborhoods in the Bronx borough of the city and elsewhere to explain the advantages of attending the school.

“It takes some convincing,” said Olga Carmona, the director of admissions at Bard. Families often have no idea about the cost of college and need information to explain the benefit of a school, such as Bard, where students finish with an associate degree and graduate from college at higher rates than their peers from traditional high schools, she said.

“We have a plethora of undiscovered youth in underserved neighborhoods that we want to support,” said Crystal Bonds, a co-chairwoman of CLASS, the president of the National Consortium of Secondary STEM Schools, and the principal of the High School for Math, Science & Engineering at City College in New York.

Ms. Bonds said her school recognizes the value of building the pipeline and reaching back into middle school to get students ready for the rigor of her high school. One Saturday program provides 6th graders with subway fare to come to the school, get homework help, meet mentors, and take special outings to museums and college campuses.

Having leaders of selective high schools coalesce to advocate for underrepresented students is welcome, said Christina L. Theokas, the research director at the Education Trust. “But it’s not enough to solve the problem,” she said. Traditional public high schools should also open up opportunities for these students, she said, and districts must provide rigor in middle school to improve the pipeline.

A version of this article appeared in the May 20, 2015 edition of Education Week as Selective Public Schools Struggle to Diversify Enrollments

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