Editorial: Doors of Austin’s LASA, Kealing magnets open for more blacks, Latinos

The Austin Independent School District has taken a bold step in addressing the lack of racial and ethnic diversity in its acclaimed Liberal Arts and Science Academy and Kealing Middle School magnet program.

It’s about time.

Now, we urge Austin ISD trustees and Superintendent Paul Cruz to take another giant step by establishing a middle school and high school — on par with LASA and Kealing — south of Lady Bird Lake, given demand for science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum — or STEM — and rigorous liberal arts.

Both of those schools have more demand for seats than supply. The district could go a long way in stabilizing its enrollment and sending more students of all races and ethnicities to elite colleges by taking those programs to scale.

First, we want to give kudos to school trustees — especially Edmund “Ted” Gordon of District 1, Paul Saldaña of District 6 and Board President Kendall Pace — and Cruz for tackling the diversity issue that long has festered without solution, until now.

American-Statesman writer Melissa B. Taboada recently reported that both schools experienced double-digit increases in the percentage of black and Latino students for next school year’s entering classes.

It’s important that Austin ISD ramp up its STEM education to prepare more students for college and jobs that rely heavily on math, science, coding, problem-solving and analytical skills — which are at the core of instruction at Kealing and LASA — while providing a well-rounded education in history, literature, world affairs and other areas.

But as successful as such magnet programs have been in sending graduates to the nation’s most elite public and private universities, they have lagged in opening their doors to African-Americans and Latinos.

Historically, white students have claimed the majority of all spots, followed by Asian-American students. Black students made up less than 2 percent at both Kealing and LASA, and the percentage of black, Hispanic and low-income students had declined in recent years, Taboada reported. While 58 percent of the students in the district are Hispanic, that group counted for less than a quarter of either magnet’s enrollment.

Antiquated admissions policies — coupled with a lack of outreach to African-American and Latino families and Title 1 schools, whose students are from low-income families — are blamed for the racial and ethnic disparities in LASA and Kealing.

To make admissions criteria more inclusive, the district for the first time considered factors — such as socioeconomic status, race and the neighborhood where a student lives — but it did so without watering down performance standards, Cruz told the editorial board. And after 30 years of lackluster results, the new criteria is hopeful.

While the shift is modest compared to the overall demographics of the schools, it’s nonetheless significant. Consider that the percentage of incoming black students at Kealing hit 4 percent, twice the percentage of the school’s current sixth-grade class; at LASA, black students make up 5 percent of the incoming class, more than double the representation in the current ninth-grade population.

There also were notable gains in Hispanic admissions: 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 sixth- and ninth-grade classes.

Keep in mind that the results are preliminary and won’t be final until students show up for class.

To that point, we urge those schools to roll out the welcome mats. Also, it will be important that the new crop of students have a strong support network. Many LASA parents and supporters have spoken to the unique LASA culture. That is fine — but if “unique” means “exclusive,” that can be intimidating to newcomers.

As we noted, Cruz and trustees should expand magnet programs to the district’s southern sectors by establishing a middle and high school that mirror Kealing and LASA.

And there are plenty of reasons to do so, starting with stabilizing Austin ISD’s declining enrollment. As one trustee told us, “people are voting with their feet” with an exodus largely felt at the middle school level – where historically, the district has not provided the rigor or environment many parents desire. As a result, 13,000 students within Austin ISD’s boundaries are attending charter or private schools, said Drew Scheberle, a vice president with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

Then there is the issue of equity for southwest, south-central and southeast sections of the district that have scarce magnet offerings compared with the district’s northern sectors — and no magnet on par with LASA.

And there is demand for more magnet seats. Consider that 437 students applied to Kealing for the next school year. Of those, 351 were accepted. For LASA, 585 students competed for seats, with 367 accepted.

Unfortunately, Cruz and trustees missed a golden opportunity to address the lack of magnet programs in the district’s southern areas by endorsing a facilities master plan this month that ignores that. Instead, in a decision that lacked transparency and opened a racial rift, Cruz decided to sever the predominantly white LASA from its current site at the largely minority Lyndon Baines Johnson High School in northeast Austin, so it could relocate at a more central location.

It’s encouraging that the new magnet admissions policy is opening opportunities for more students of color. But parents and students need a champion with a broader vision that looks to expanding the high quality of LASA and Kealing to all quadrants of the district, so that more Austin kids can share in the magnet miracle.

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