Principal Kenisha Coburn’s push to increase the diversity of students at the mostly white Kealing Middle School magnet program goes beyond adding black and Latino students to the attendance rolls.
Coburn said she could go to the area’s high-tech companies to recruit employees’ children to increase the numbers. Instead, she wants to bring in the kids who are low-income or whose parents didn’t attend college. She wants the kids who live in attendance zones from which the magnet hasn’t drawn students in the past, children who didn’t think it was an option for them.
She wants gifted students who’ve never been in a program like Kealing’s to be able to walk into the room and know they are competitive with those from middle class and well-to-do families with more resources and support at home.
“I am not interested in the appearance of equity on the back of students,” she said. “I want real equity.”
After changing admissions last year, Kealing has made modest gains in attracting more underserved black and Hispanic students into its magnet program. Similar changes also have been made to admissions at the nationally ranked LASA High School.
More notable were the increases of low-income students. Kealing’s magnet more than doubled its low-income student population from 9 percent to 19 percent in 2017-18. LASA’s low-income population grew to nearly 100 students, from 7 percent to 8.3 percent.
While the gains show promise that the admission changes will help diversify the magnet programs, the Austin school district missed its targets in bringing up the numbers.
Diversity expected to edge up again next year
The disparities go back years. While the students in the Austin school district are mostly Hispanic and poor, the students in the district’s most sought-after magnet schools are largely white or Asian, and are from more affluent homes.
While Latinos make up 57 percent of the district’s student population, less than a quarter are in the sought-after magnets. Fewer low-income students are admitted into the programs, and for years, less than 2 percent of black students were enrolled in them. Critics said the competitive admissions process favored white students from affluent families with highly educated parents who could help them pull together an application packet that included test scores, essays and teacher recommendations. A student’s economic status or ethnicity were not factored on magnet applications.
But both Kealing and LASA changed their admissions processes going into the current school year, and for the first time considered factors such as race, socioeconomic status or the neighborhood where a student lives. Preliminary admissions numbers for 2018-19 show the schools will maintain the gains, or slightly increase, but again, fall short of diversity goals.
“They’ve showed some improvement, but not nearly sufficient enough improvement given the demographics of the district,” said school board member Ted Gordon, who represents the areas of East and Northeast Austin where both schools are located.
Gordon said there needs to be a more sophisticated process for recruitment than just tweaks to admissions, and said district leaders should look to diversity efforts on the collegiate level for strategies to use.
Though some pushed back against the admissions changes, fearing the rigor of the programs would be watered down, Coburn said there was no need to lower the standards. There already were students who met academic standards, but needed the opportunity, and now the support, to persist in the programs.
While supportive of the changes to bring in more diversity, school board President Kendall Pace said the district must do more, starting in the early grades to better prepare low-income students and children of color.
“It highlights we have work to be done,” Pace said. “You have to fix the academics and eliminate those equity gaps in the earlier years. Unless you bring academic excellence to our students of poverty and students of color, you’re not going to create a strong pipeline for students interested in our magnets.”
Among the admission changes, the schools beefed up their recruiting and now do more to assist students with their applications.
“I’m first proud these are things we’re digging into,” Coburn said. “I’m happy to see ready students from every attendance zone have a real ability to come to this program, which wasn’t the case in the past.”
Tweaking admissions isn’t a cure-all, Coburn said. Equity must be pursued not only in the campuses, but also at the district and city levels because “underserving whole communities of people” is a symptom of a larger problem, she said. “We continue to put systems in place here to recognize, attract, admit and serve a broader base of students because we should.”