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Selective High Schools Work Together to Diversify Student Population

Many selective high schools do not reflect the demographic makeup of their districts. Narrow admissions policies and lack of awareness among potential students are among the reasons that leaders say often low-income, Latino, and African-American students are underrepresented in these competitive academies.

To diversify their student bodies and close the so-called "excellence gap" that keeps talented disadvantaged students from getting opportunities to excel, school leaders and policymakers are trying new strategies. Among the efforts: outreach to low-income families, academic-enrichment programs for elementary and middle students, political organizing to change policies, and efforts to enroll more underrepresented minority students in college-level coursework.

"We have a plethora of undiscovered youth in underserved neighborhoods that we want to support," said Crystal Bonds, a co-chairwoman of the new Coalition of Leaders for Advanced Success and the principal of the High School for Math, Science & Engineering at City College in New York. Bonds, and others, are trying creative approaches to prepare the pipeline of K-8 students before they apply to selective high schools.

I recently wrote about school leaders working to attract more high-achieving students from disadvantaged backgrounds into specialized program in my story, "Selective High Schools Struggle to Diversity Student Bodies."

Providing extra support

When Rockdale Magnet School for Science and Technology first opened in Conyers, Ga., in 2000, it primarily served upper-class, white families, said Debra Arnold, the principal at the school since 2005. A shift in demographics in the county has changed that makeup of the student body, which now is comprised of African-Americans (54 percent), whites (29 percent), Asians (10 percent), and Hispanic students (4 percent).  While about one-third qualified for free and reduced lunch this school year, next year that share is expected to increase to 40 percent, said Arnold.

To best serve these fragile students who need extra support, teachers have participated in professional development training including cultural awareness and differentiated instruction.

Rockdale added an after-school bus and plans to have a second one next year to encourage students to participate in after-school clubs. "Research shows if students are engaged and involved, they will be more successful with their academics, "said Ms. Arnold.

Another example was found at Irmo High School in Columbia, S.C. This 1,500-student public international arts magnet has no qualification process; students from the neighborhood and others are admitted by lottery.  As a result, students come from a wide range of economic backgrounds and there is a large population of English-language learners, said Principal David Riegel.

However to be in the International Baccalaureate program at Irmo, students have to take certain prerequisite courses and pass an interview to make sure they are prepared.  Fewer students in the program are low-income (less than 15 percent) compared to the school as a whole (50 percent), said Riegel. Now the school is working on ways to promote diversity in the IB program to help close the excellence gap. Riegel would like to start a program for 9th and 10th graders who might not get into advanced coursework without extra support. He would like to fund college visits for the students, pair them with mentors, and get motivated to enroll in IB as juniors.

"When we survey or do interviews with our kids about what they like about the school, the first thing out of their mouth is diversity," said Mr. Riegel. "Kids like learning from kids from different backgrounds. It's more representative of our society and the world. We don't want to have any barriers to programs. Everybody who is capable should be able to do it."

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