Austin’s top magnet schools, the nationally-recognized Liberal Arts and Science Academy and Kealing Middle School, will welcome a more diverse group of students to their campuses beginning this fall.
Just months after the two campuses adjusted their admission criteria to increase diversity in their student populations, preliminary data show both schools will have an increase in incoming Latino and black students, two groups that have been underrepresented since the magnets’ inceptions. The percentage of black students in the incoming classes is more than double what it was last year, with a corresponding double-digit increase in the percentage of Latino students, preliminary admissions data show.
“It’s moving both schools in the right direction and it’s heartening,” said district Trustee Ted Gordon, who represents the geographic areas that include both schools and has pushed for the change since being elected to the school board in 2014. “The take away from this is if you make a concerted effort to diversify your programs, they will bear fruit.”
For years, the district has been criticized for the lack of diversity, both economic and racial, in the two schools. Historically, white students have claimed the majority of all spots, followed by Asian students. Black students made up less than 2 percent at both schools, and the percentage of black, Hispanic and low-income students had declined in recent years. While 58 percent of the students in the district are Hispanic, that group counted for less than a quarter of either magnet’s enrollment.
Parents and community members have long argued the district’s top academic schools should be accessible to more students and better reflect the district’s population, the majority of which is Hispanic and poor. But others have cautioned against changes, saying admittance should be based solely on academic and testing performance and that both schools have succeeded because of that strict focus.
After a significant push in the last year from a group of community members, the schools changed their admissions criteria and now, for the first time, are considering factors such as race, socioeconomic status and the neighborhood where a student lives.
“There’d been a lot of talk for a lot of years on how to improve representation at that school but not a lot done,” said Amber Welsh, who lives in the northeast area of the city where LASA is located, and was instrumental in working with district officials and community members on the issue. “I feel it’s a move in the right direction, but as with any policy, the district needs to continue to monitor the implementation of the policy and adjust what they’re doing until they get equitable representation.”
While the shift is modest compared to the overall demographics of the schools, the percentage of incoming black students at Kealing hit 4 percent, twice the percentage of the school’s current 6th grade class; at LASA, black students make up 5 percent of the incoming class, more than double the representation in the current 9th grade population. At LASA, 22 percent of incoming students are Latino, while Kealing reports 27 percent of incoming students are Latino — up 7 percentage points and 12 percentage points, respectively, over this year’s 6th and 9th grade classes.
“We want kids to know we want them here and that they can be successful here. That’s the big picture,” said LASA Principal Stacia Crescenzi.
Beside changes to the admissions criteria, both schools also bolstered their recruiting and began assisting students from underserved groups with the application package. LASA’s Crescenzi she said will examine what worked.
“It looks like we’re headed in the right direction, but we really need to do some good analysis in what worked … and find out what’s been most helpful so we can increase those efforts moving forward, as well as find out what’s been less helpful and see how we can fix that.”
The socioeconomic breakdown of the incoming students has not yet been calculated for either school, something Gordon and others advocating for greater access among low-income students said would shed more light on how the admission process will affect diversity in other ways.
“I’d want to see the socioeconomic status figures because segregation in this city is both racial and economic,” Gordon said.
Such numbers won’t be available until after the students are registered, district officials said, as well as the final percentages of ethnic and racial backgrounds.
But the principals said they are also encouraged by stronger representation from various neighborhoods, including from some areas where students have not typically applied in the past. At LASA, Crescenzi said she was encouraged that students from every feeder middle school applied. “That’s not something we’ve ever had before,” she said.
“The biggest hope we have at this point is ensuring that we’re able to get students who are ready and willing to do the work from all over the city and not just little pockets of the city,” said Kealing Principal Kenisha Coburn. “This process helps us to do that.”