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After criticism, HS students tackle diversity issue on their own

Ever since a Daily News column highlighted declining numbers of black and Hispanic students at an elite Manhattan high school, students there have been trying to figure out how to bolster diversity. Tonight, they are holding a forum to confront the topic head on — but their school won’t be participating.

Beacon High School has accepted fewer minority and low-income students every year since it adopted a selective admissions procedures in 2005, even as the total number of students has been rising, according to the May 15 column by Juan Gonzalez in the Daily News.

The column reignited an ongoing conversation at Beacon about the school’s changing demographics, a Beacon senior, Cory Meara-Bainbridge, told me. After it appeared, a group of about 15 students banded together to plan a forum to begin a tough conversation about how the school’s unique admissions procedures might influence who applies and gets into the elite Upper West Side high school. Beacon requires not only high grades, strong test scores, and a portfolio of work, but also an in-person interview for admission. Current students sit on the interview committees.

So far, students say, the school’s administration has declined to participate in the discussion. Principal Ruth Lacey turned down an invitation to attend the forum tonight, which is being held at a local church because the school did not want to host it, according to a press release from the students. Most teachers are also planning to stay away, Meara-Bainbridge told me. “They didn’t want to come because they felt like it would be an attack on them,” she said. “But it’s not going to be that way. We’re creating dialogue. We love our school and we just want to make it better.”

The forum is being moderated by Pedro Noguera, the New York University education professor who wrote on GothamSchools recently that schools need to address the problems of poverty. Noguera is also a Beacon parent. (Other Beacon parents include Gov. David Paterson, City Council member Bill de Blasio, and James Liebman, the schools’ accountability czar.)

“Beacon is a great school in every way,” Noguera told me today. “But I think the concern that students are raising — and it’s a concern the whole city should be aware of — is that a number of better schools are increasingly not available to a diverse cross-section of the city. And that’s, I think, a real problem.”

Ultimately, the problem requires a policy remedy “from the top,” Noguera said. “The chancellor needs to take some leadership on this.”

For now, Beacon students are working from the ground up to figure out why fewer minority and low-income students are applying and are identifying ways to boost the numbers, Meara-Bainbridge said. The purpose of tonight’s forum is to work toward a set of policy recommendations, she said. “We’re not exactly sure yet what needs to change but we need to get working on it with the administration,” she told me.

The students have already generated a slate of potential policy recommendations, including starting a volunteer program at PS 191, a local elementary school that draws most of its students from housing projects near Lincoln Center. Other suggestions include convening a committee to study admissions patterns at Beacon and other schools and increasing support for struggling students.

The recommendations have little chance to be implemented if the school’s administration continues to avoid the uncomfortable topics of race and class, Noguera said. “They don’t want the discussion to take place and that’s a very sad reflection,” he said. “It’s a progressive school and the fact that their students want to deal with these issues is a positive sign. There’s no reason to be defensive.”

Last week, community groups and a group of professors, including Noguera, wrote to Lacey and Klein urging them to participate in the forum. Chief Schools Officer Eric Nadelstern replied on Klein’s behalf, disputing the numbers the group cited and arguing that Beacon is one of the most diverse high schools in Manhattan. Still, he said, the department would commit to helping the school “conduct target recruitment in underrepresented communities.” He did not specify the form the outreach might take or whether the school would receive additional resources to make it happen.

Targeted recruitment would be helpful, Noguera said, but it would do little to address the racial and economic segregation that pervades many city schools, especially the selective high schools. The proportion of black and Hispanic students at other elite schools has been dropping in recent years, the New York Times reported last summer.

“I don’t think this is a Beacon matter,” he said. “Beacon is the tip of the iceberg. What’s unique is that the kids at Beacon are the ones raising the issue.”

Educators Letter and Nadelstern’s Response