College & Workforce Readiness

Disadvantaged Students Outnumbered at Top Public Boarding Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — October 25, 2016 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of the school. It is the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics.

Thriving in an academically rigorous environment is about more than simply being prepared for classes; it’s about a student fitting in and seeing herself as a top student.

As advanced academic programs work to find and enroll more poor and minority students, new research suggests just how complex it can be for students from traditionally disadvantaged groups to feel at home in such programs. These students can be particularly vulnerable as they encounter more academically challenging classes and peers who are economically better off. How a school presents its programs and provides emotional support to students can mean the difference between students struggling and excelling.

In a study published earlier this year, Mesmin Destin, an associate professor of education and social policy at Northwestern University, found incoming low-income college students’ uncertainty about their own social status and identity significantly affected their achievement and willingness to try hard, both in the run-up to college and during their first year of college.

“Oftentimes, kids are just so attuned to their social context, and it’s much more subtle than, ‘You can’t do this,’ ” Destin said. “Adults can talk about high expectations, everyone’s going to college, ... but if you as a student see the high costs but no strategy to help you get there, you might still parrot those adult expectations without really seeing yourself doing it.”

Elite Opportunities

With rigorous courses, enrichment, and often round-the-clock counseling and career services, the nation’s academically oriented public boarding schools can offer a promising model for nurturing gifted students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

They also offer a window to the supports needed to nurture talented students from poor communities.

Senior Dinora Flores, left, gets homework help from classmate Tanasha Owens in a residence hall at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham. The school offers supports to attract and keep students like Dinora, a daughter of Mexican immigrants.

Dinora Flores, now a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics in Durham, recalled a rough start after coming to the school, the nation’s oldest public boarding high school for gifted students, from Fairmont High School, in Robeson County, a high-poverty and majority-minority community in the state. The daughter of Mexican immigrants who had not finished high school, Flores found contradictions in the campus: few Hispanic students but also fewer preconceived notions about what she was capable of.

“At home, I felt like it was all competition. ... A lot of upper-class students made a stereotype that I was Hispanic and into fashion,” Flores said. “When I came here [to the North Carolina School], people didn’t say, ‘Oh, I never would have known you were smart.’ Here, everyone just generalizes that everyone here must be smart.”

At the same time, the realization that the boarding school’s courses were significantly more challenging than her home school’s honors courses shook her sense of her own academic ability.

“Before I got here, I was really good at math and science, but when I came in, I was in the lowest-level classes,” she said. While she had taken an Advanced Placement course in history in her home school, it had not offered AP math or science courses. She began tutoring sessions provided by the school and her interest moved away from math toward history and American Studies research. “I had to humble myself and learn to ask for help,” Flores said.

The school provides tutoring sessions to any student who needs them, as well as round-the-clock mental-health counselors and college and career planning, according to Lori Hackney, the dean of counseling at the North Carolina School.

“Of course, our students are incredibly bright and motivated and seek out opportunities to learn, … but they are still adolescents, and they go through all the normal things that every adolescent goes through—dating and homesickness and everything,” Hackney said. “We try to provide the bridge for support they need academically but also emotionally.”

Still, she added, the “first line of support [for vulnerable students] is from the students themselves.”

Keeping Community Roots

North Carolina School, like most of the nation’s elite public boarding schools for the gifted, enrolls disproportionately high numbers of white, Asian, and wealthier students, and disproportionately fewer low-income students and those of black, Hispanic, and Native American backgrounds, according to both a 2009 Roeper Review study and newer federal data.

Students Angelique Little, right, and Tia Sparks enjoy a "spa night" in their residence hall. The school is the nation's oldest public boarding school for gifted students.

Part of the problem is recruitment. For example, the North Carolina School must draw students from across the state as part of its mission, but of the more than 1,400 students who applied to the school last year, 60 percent were white, 25 percent Asian, and only 15 percent were of other races. The 680 students who ultimately enrolled in the two-year residential program broke out along similar lines. While the school is free to students and does not collect income data on their families, about 10 percent of the students receive financial aid for equipment, test fees, and a monthly stipend, and about 50 to 60 this year came from the state’s poorest electoral districts, according to Rob Andrews, an admissions counselor for the North Carolina School.

“When you look at our population, that’s very skewed compared to the population of North Carolina, but it’s similar to other [gifted residential] schools like ours,” Andrews said. As of 2015-16, public school enrollment in the state was just under half white, 26 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic, 3 percent Asian, and 1.3 percent Native American. More than half of public school students in the state come from low-income homes.

Subtle cues may turn off students from historically underrepresented backgrounds or make them feel out of place if they do enroll, Destin and his colleagues found.

In a separate series of experiments outlined in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin earlier this year, researchers asked undergraduate students to review promotional material about their college. Half saw pamphlets that focused on the school’s endowment and alumni giving, with descriptions that played up the number of students who afforded tuition without aid. The second pamphlet focused on the school’s commitment to economic diversity on campus, highlighting financial aid and work-study awards given.

Afterward, both groups of students were surveyed on their confidence in their academic ability and expected GPA at the school. Low-income students who saw the materials focused on the school’s wealth reported less confidence in their abilities and expected lower grades at graduation than students who saw the more-inclusive language, regardless of their actual academic strengths.

“Whether or not people realize it, your economic background shapes how you see yourself as a person and where you feel comfortable in the world,” Destin said. “In the United States, we tend to see ourselves as a classless society—everybody is middle class and has the same opportunities—and when we are confronted with evidence that is not the case, we don’t really have the language to talk about it.”

Elite schools may underestimate communities’ ambivalence about their students attending, according to Belton Moore, a 2016 North Carolina School graduate who still helps recruit students. Moore, a member of the Lumbee tribe of North Carolina and also from Robeson County, previously attended a tightly knit public high school where 80 percent of the students are Native American and more than half low-income. Few in the community were familiar with the North Carolina School.

“The vast majority of my family lived within five miles. [Going away for school] was not just a family decision; it was a community decision, … and the history of people like me going to boarding school was not the best thing,” he said, referring to the federal government’s policy of placing American Indian children in inferior and sometimes abusive residential schools whose aim was to divest the children of their cultural identities. “People wonder: How are they going to change you? Will you remember your roots?”

An older sister had also been accepted to the school, but she ultimately decided not to go.

Flores also came from a small, high-poverty, and mostly minority school. Her parents encouraged her to attend, but “other people in my family were like, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ I was a little bit wary of it,” she said.

North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics is the nation’s oldest public boarding school for gifted students.

While most of the school’s transition services focus on getting students used to classes, managing time, and living on their own, both Flores and Moore said they grappled with maintaining their cultural connections, too.

“Even though I was in the best position—I had these resources and I utilized them—even so, it was hard. I never really felt in my element, just because of all the stereotypes in my head of Native Americans [not being academic],” Moore said. “There was just always this sense of not being at home and knowing you are not at home.”

Separate research shows that when high school students who hope to be the first in their families to attend college get a chance to see a panel of older first-generation college-goers talk about their early challenges, they have higher achievement and better retention in college.

Both Moore and Flores say they benefited from the school’s summer bridge program, which provides an academic boost for students whose home classes were less rigorous but also offers counseling and connection to other incoming students.

“There was a lot of diversity in the summer bridge program itself, but there was less disparity,” Moore said. “There were people from all over the state, but we were all there from similar environments and under-resourced schools, and we were all going through the same thing.”

The North Carolina School, which is required by its charter to enroll 4 percent to 11 percent of its students from each electoral district in the state, has worked to increase the number of students from poor or otherwise disadvantaged backgrounds.

This year, it enrolled its first class using new admissions criteria and recruitment to ensure better representation from the state’s poorest electoral communities. The school does not set a minimum SAT score for entry, instead focusing on students who score above average in their own high schools, and it dropped the requirement that students take the SAT writing test, which costs extra. The school also softened its focus on science, technology, engineering, and math courses, particularly since many high schools in the state have limited lab resources and advanced classes. The changes have helped broaden the school’s reach; it now enrolls students from 92 of the 100 counties statewide, Andrews, the admissions counselor, said.

Flores returned to the summer bridge program this year—but as a mentor. She is a residential assistant in her hall, counseling incoming juniors and sharing her own experiences. She’s also an officer in the school’s first Hispanic Culture Club, helping build more cultural understanding.

“A lot of students are homesick and feeling overwhelmed by how intense classes seem at first,” she said. “It’s really hard to realize you are not the smartest one in the room, but it’s also kind of nice to realize everyone is able to help you.”

Coverage of the experiences of low-income, high-achieving students is supported in part by a grant from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, at Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2016 edition of Education Week as Finding A Home at Elite Public Boarding Schools


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