A racist science fair project at McClatchy High School has garnered national media attention for concluding that the lack of diversity in the rigorous Humanities and International Studies Program is because blacks and Latinos have lower IQs than whites and Asians.
How could this have happened at a diverse public school in the heart of a progressive city?
In attempting to answer that question, The Sacramento Bee’s coverage has painted HISP as an exclusive enclave of entitlement and bigotry that nurtured the student’s backward thinking. While the program is indeed flawed, this portrayal is inaccurate.
The statistics on HISP’s racial composition – 70 percent white and Asian – give the impression that the program’s admissions process is discriminatory, especially since black and Latino students make up 47 percent of McClatchy’s overall population.
In reality, HISP’s admissions process is designed to promote diversity as much as possible under state law. Proposition 209, which bans high schools from inquiring about student ethnicities during the application process, rules out affirmative action.
Instead, the program admits the top 20 percent of students from each Sacramento City Unified School District middle and K-8 school, including schools that have large majorities of black and Latino students such as Fern Bacon and Will C. Wood. Remaining slots are filled by a lottery.
This system has failed to diversify HISP because high-achieving minority students simply don’t claim their places. HISP coordinator Ellen Wong says she received only two applications from Fern Bacon last year.
HISP has gone to great lengths to attract minority students. Years ago, Wong says she sought data from the district office to send recruitment letters to every black eighth-grader with a GPA above 3.0. She used to give well-attended presentations at every middle school, and sent student representatives to eighth-grade classes until, ironically, the district claimed equity issues when specialty programs advertised themselves. Now, the district hosts its own “Choose Your Futures” recruitment days.
The current scandal could ultimately be a positive if it forces Sac City Superintendent Jorge Aguilar to make diversifying HISP a priority. Still, the past efforts deserve more attention.
The Bee’s coverage also suggests that HISP students are complicit in the actions of their classmate. Columnist Marcos Breton wrote that he is not surprised a student created a racist science fair project because such programs have “cultures of exclusivity” and are “incubators of arrogance.” The few students interviewed imply that there’s a toxic atmosphere because HISP members don’t associate with other students.
Let’s have some perspective. HISP classes comprise two hours out of a seven-hour school day, after which there are countless extracurricular opportunities open to all. HISP is more like the standard Advanced Placement classes available at virtually all high schools than it is to a comprehensive program such as Kennedy High’s Program in American and California Explorations, which is housed in its own section of campus.
The notion that HISP is isolated enough to have developed a distinct culture is misleading; the idea that this isolation has created a rigid caste system at McClatchy is laughable. Many of my closest friends aren’t in the program. I’m one of only two HISP kids on McClatchy’s basketball team, and a girl who walked to the U.S. from Honduras sat next to me in Spanish class last year. That’s my McClatchy experience. I can’t speak for everyone in HISP, but neither can the small number of students interviewed by The Bee.
I am very much bothered by HISP’s lack of diversity, and I find the science fair project abhorrent. But the two issues are separate. Lumping them together to implicate all of HISP in one student’s wrongdoing is irresponsible.
Kainoa Lowman, a senior at McClatchy High School in Sacramento, is editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and a member of the HISP program. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.