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The daunting struggle to diversify elite public high schools

San Francisco’s Lowell High School is one of the most selective public schools in the country. But the school’s selectivity means that black and Latino students, who are often less prepared for academic rigor than Lowell’s majority-Asian students, are underrepresented. In association with Education Week, special correspondent Spencer Michels reports on how elite schools are working to diversify.

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    As the school year nears its end, a number of highly selective public high schools around the country are struggling to deal with a longer-term problem, how to enroll more students of color.

    Special correspondent Spencer Michels looks at one such school, in this report produced in association with Education Week. It's part of our weekly series, Making the Grade.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Lowell High School in San Francisco excels in everything from music to math. Motivated, hard-driving and talented students have propelled this four-year institution to the top tier of national public school rankings.

    Its graduates include scientists, politicians, entertainers and a Supreme Court justice.

    Chrislyn Earle, here in a psychology class, is a senior.

  • CHRISLYN EARLE, Student, Lowell High School:

    I wouldn't imagine myself at any other school, to be honest. This school really builds you for the next step and the next chapter in your life.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But there is something missing at Lowell, more students like Earle from historically disadvantaged minority groups. She is one of a very small and dwindling number of African-Americans, about 2 percent of the student body. Latinos make up about 10 percent, while Asians comprise 57 percent, and whites, also dwindling, at 14 percent.

  • KAREN POLANCO, Student, Lowell High School:

    I think the people who are minorities at this school feel left out. And it is hard to find a place in this school. Like, my freshman year, I wanted to transfer.

  • KADEE SYLLA, Student, Lowell High School:

    I wanted to leave immediately. I wanted to go to Balboa instead, because I know that there's — it's more diverse over there.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    That issue came to a head this spring when a non-black student put up a poster that drew the ire of many at Lowell. Titled Black History Month, it glorified black rappers and movies, lampooned President Obama, and failed to mention historically important figures.

    African-American students walked out of class and marched to city hall to protest.

  • CHRISLYN EARLE:

    The poster was the straw that broke the camel's back.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Earle lives with her mother, Shronda Jackson (ph).

  • CHRISLYN EARLE:

    The whole main purpose of the walkout is the students at Lowell and staff members were not respectful to the black culture. We were trying to explain that we are more than just our music and the movies and entertainment. This is not OK and it's very insulting.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Earle didn't expect that when she took a test and applied to Lowell, which is a free public school.

  • WOMAN:

    When we received the letter that she was accepted, I was ecstatic.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But Earle says she didn't realize how few African-Americans she'd meet.

  • CHRISLYN EARLE:

    It didn't really soak in until I got inside the classroom, and I was the only black person in there.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Diversity and how to achieve it is a hot topic at Boston Latin, a selective public high school in Massachusetts, at Stuyvesant in New York, and at other elite schools, many of which are majority Asian.

    Often, as at Lowell, the African-American student population is dropping. Officials point to the declining numbers of blacks living in San Francisco, now just 4 percent, as one factor in the decrease in black students at Lowell. Other factors include poor preparation in early grades, low test-taking skills and, in some cases, disruptive or difficult home life, suggests San Francisco Schools superintendent Richard Carranza.

  • RICHARD CARRANZA, Superintendent, San Francisco Unified School District:

    Some families are homeless. Some families are living in poverty. Some students are in foster care.

    How do we rally to create a mosaic of supports for students that have been historically disadvantaged, to give them the equity boost they need to meet the bar that we have set for them to get into different kinds of schools?

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    The low numbers of blacks and Latinos at Lowell, for whatever reason, discourages other students of color from even applying.

    Lowell is certainly interesting, because of the diversity problems that it and several elite high schools around the country are facing. But, for me, it's personal. My wife, my grandfather, and my father all went to Lowell, and I have a son who is teaching here now.

    Just for the record, I went to a high school across town.

    But when principal Andrew Ishibashi, who has worked in, and attended, inner-city schools first became principal here, he was shocked.

  • ANDREW ISHIBASHI, Principal, Lowell High School:

    I found that diversity was the weakest area at Lowell. It's something that I have worried about for the past nine years.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Micia Mosely, a part-time stand-up comedian and teacher who founded the Black Teacher Project in the Bay Area…

  • MICIA MOSELY, Founder, Black Teacher Project:

    We at the Black Teacher Project believe that every child deserves a black teacher…

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    … says it's not a surprise that elite schools lack diversity.

  • MICIA MOSELY:

    By nature, they're exclusive. So how do you have diversity inside a system or an organization or a school that's designed to shut people out? We say we want diversity in this country. We're asking things of schools that we're unwilling to do of ourselves.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Her answer?

  • MICIA MOSELY:

    So, you groom people. So, this idea that folks are born innately with the skills to succeed in these elite schools is ridiculous. Everyone's groomed. Whether that means that you have a parent making sure your academics are in order, or you go to a good school that's preparing you, folks don't come out of the womb ready to succeed in an elite school.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But bringing more people of color into Lowell is not simple, says superintendent Carranza.

  • RICHARD CARRANZA:

    Well, if we knew that, we'd have already figured it out, and so would have Stuyvesant and Boston Latin. If you see students of color in your school, are they made to feel like they're welcome? Or do students of color feel like, well, they're just a quota?

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Lowell's principal has tried to dispel that feeling and boost academic performance by meeting occasionally at lunchtime with black freshmen and sophomores and a special consultant to go over grades and problems.

  • ANDREW ISHIBASHI:

    How did you guys do last spring?

  • STUDENT:

    First semester, I was like really great at algebra II. Even though I was doubling up, you would think that I would fall behind, but I did it.

  • ANDREW ISHIBASHI:

    So, have you come down here for tutoring? I have seen you guys down here, but…

  • STUDENT:

    Yes. I come down here to study, get a few tutors.

  • STUDENT:

    You know, my Spanish grade was like really bad. It was like an F. And now it's to a B, because I worked really hard to get it there.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Addressing the issues of diversity frankly is a major goal of an elective class in critical thinking and social change.

  • CHARLES HUYNH, Student, Lowell High School:

    A lot of people don't want to go to a school full of a lot of Asians and then just like — you know? So, it discourages people from going to Lowell.

  • PHILIP MA, Student, Lowell High School:

    I just feel we — we're usually too busy studying and getting a good GPA and stuff. As a result, we haven't really had time to think about how what we do impacts minorities and all that stuff.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Malia Cohen, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors, and a graduate of Lowell in 1996, wants the district to allocate more money to address enrollment at her alma mater.

    MALIA COHEN, San Francisco Board of Supervisors: So, when it comes to actually hiring a person specifically charged with the duty of targeting an increasing enrollment, that's what we're not seeing.

  • RICHARD CARRANZA:

    Who's going to pay for that? Do I hire another English teacher or math teacher, or do I hire another specialized person to do something?

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Lowell's principal has made recruiting a priority, going into black and Latino communities and persuading promising students to apply to Lowell. As for making it easier for students to get in, it's a topic that was hashed out and rejected in court years ago.

  • ANDREW ISHIBASHI:

    I would like to see a little dent in as far as not having to pull such high test scores and grades.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    But the way to get more minority kids into elite schools, nearly everyone agrees, is to start young.

  • MICIA MOSELY:

    I went to Brooklyn Tech High School in New York City, which is a specialized high school, and had to take an exam. And I know that the preparation I had in elementary and middle school allowed me to do well on that exam, allowed me to do well in school.

  • SPENCER MICHELS:

    Lowell and the nation's other elite public high schools have acknowledged they have a long way to go to achieve the diversity they say they value.

    For the "PBS NewsHour" and Education Week, I'm Spencer Michels in San Francisco.

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