Austin’s prized magnet schools take steps to diversify student body

The Austin district’s nationally recognized magnet high school, the Liberal Arts and Science Academy, and its prized magnet middle school, Kealing, are overhauling their admissions processes in hopes of increasing student diversity.

The programs for the first time will consider factors such as race, socioeconomic status or the neighborhood where a student lives. The changes will apply to applicants for the 2017-18 school year. Until now, admissions for LASA and Kealing were based solely on a rubric that factors in academic performance, test scores, essays and teacher recommendations.

The district for years has been criticized for the lack of economic and racial diversity in the two programs, with parents and community members saying the top schools should be accessible to a wider group of students and reflect district demographics. Others have argued that admissions should continue to be based solely on academic and standardized testing performance.

While the majority of the district comprises Latino students and students who come from low-income families, those who attend the highly rated magnets are largely white and more affluent. At LASA and Kealing, fewer than 12 percent of the students come from low-income families, and more than half of the students are white, according to April enrollment data. Just over 1 percent of the two magnets’ students are black.

“The more diverse the classes are, the better educational experience every student has,” said Stacia Crescenzi, LASA’s principal.

Currently, both schools draw the majority of their students from Northwest and Southwest Austin, and there are feeder schools and areas of town, primarily in East Austin, that don’t have students in either LASA or Kealing.

“We have a large group of students who meet the academic standards and have the work ethic and interest in being here,” said Kenisha Coburn, Kealing’s principal. “It’s not a conversation of needing to lower the standard or change the program. There are students who are ready but haven’t had the chance to get into the program.”

‘Proof is in the pudding’

Under the changes, 80 percent of new LASA students will be admitted under the current admissions criteria. The other 20 percent will be admitted using a combination of the old system and special circumstances that could include race or ethnicity, socioeconomics, primary language spoken at home, whether the student’s parents attended college, the middle school the student attends and the student’s scores on standardized tests compared with the average scores at the student’s middle school. The method is not yet finalized, and the principal is awaiting approval from the district’s legal counsel before adopting it.

At Kealing, 50 percent of the slots will go to applicants with the highest total scores under the current criteria. The other 50 percent will be awarded to the top-scoring applicants from elementary schools across Austin, giving each part of the district a proportionate number of slots.

Had the criteria of both models been applied to the 2016 applicants, more ethnic minorities, low-income students and students from different neighborhoods would have been accepted at the two magnets, the principals said.

The upcoming change gives hope to community members who live in District 1, the east and northeast area of the district, where LASA and Kealing are located. The majority of the students who live in the area are low-income and are black or Latino, but few of them attend the magnets. Some community members have long complained about that disparity.

Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents District 1, has been the most vocal school board member on the issue of magnet school admissions, saying the inequity has concerned him for years. About 15 years ago, his son attended what was then the Science Academy and is now LASA, and was one of four black students. His daughter opted not to attend because she didn’t want her brother’s experience of being one of only a few black students in the program, Gordon said.

Gordon, chairman of the African and African Diaspora Studies Department at the University of Texas, points to the diversity efforts at the most rigorous universities in the country, including UT. Austin schools should do no less, he said.

“The upcoming change is a very positive move in what I consider is the right direction, but as they say, ‘The proof is in the pudding,’ ” Gordon said. “At least they’ve admitted there’s a problem and are putting some processes in place to address the problem. It is a move in the right direction and more than what they’ve done in the past.”

Recruiting makeover

Both schools also are beefing up their recruitment methods across the district and providing students more assistance to apply. Kealing will ask for only one at-home essay.

LASA is doing a targeted postcard mailer about the school, particularly to neighborhoods that are underrepresented.

Parents of current and former students and alumni also will be going to middle school campuses to assist interested eighth-graders with the applications. In years past, some families have hired tutors to work through the process. The new measures will help level the playing field for students who get no such support, the principals said.

Parent Maria Graziani, whose son is a junior at LASA, said she’s been involved in discussions about changing the admissions process since he was a freshman, and she’s in favor of it.

“I support the administration in taking the steps necessary to make the LASA student population look like the Austin population,” she said.

Graziani said more minorities should have access to “this amazing education,” even if they aren’t the highest scorers and might have difficulty adjusting to the rigor.

LASA “kids who have had A’s all their lives now are getting C’s for the first time,” she said. “So they might have a little bit of a challenge because it’s going to be rigorous, but they’ll be in good company because it’s tough for everybody. Everybody is ready to help support,” she said.

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