Elite or elitist? Why there are so few black and Latino students in advanced high school programs

Kennedy Maravilla faced a tough choice a few years ago when he was deciding where to go to high school in Sacramento: Should he pick inner-city Luther Burbank, noted more for gangs than academics, or attend a respected humanities program at C.K. McClatchy, widely considered a pathway to top colleges.

He went with Luther Burbank, taking his chances on the school’s lesser-known advanced academy meant to serve kids from his neighborhood.

“I just felt like I didn’t fit in in terms of my skin color,” said the 18-year-old senior of his visit to the McClatchy program.

A first-generation American whose parents immigrated from Mexico, Maravilla said he felt uncomfortable inside the Humanities and International Studies Program, or HISP, classes on the Land Park campus, only a few miles from his south Sacramento home but demographically distant.

“I went in there and I was like the only person with the color brown. I was like, no, no,” Maravilla said. “I didn’t want to be surrounded just by the same color. I wanted to ... walk around campus and feel comfortable.”

Maravilla picked up on a problem that has plagued exclusive magnet academies in the Sacramento region for years. They are meant to draw the best students from across their districts, but they often become enclaves of white and Asian students from middle- and upper-income homes – schools within schools catering to limited demographics.

A review of Sacramento County schools by The Sacramento Bee revealed that the number of African American and Hispanic students in accelerated high school programs is often much lower than the percentages in the general student population at the same school.

“When it comes to advanced courses, whether it’s honors courses, Advanced Placement classes, International Baccalaureate programs, we have seen underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos across the board,” said Ryan Smith, executive director of The Education-Trust West, a nonprofit advocacy group.

Two recent race-related incidents involving students in such programs has highlighted this lack of diversity.

McClatchy High School faced controversy last week when a student in its accelerated program did a science fair project questioning if there were low numbers of certain races in the program because they had lower intelligence levels. After the project came to light, Sacramento City Unified School District Superintendent Jorge Aguilar announced a review of equity and diversity in elite programs district-wide. He also said the district would investigate how the student’s project was allowed to go on display.

Mira Loma High School in the San Juan Unified School District is under investigation by the U.S. Department of Education after the National Center for Youth Law filed a civil rights complaint saying school officials did nothing when African American students dropped out of the IB program after being harassed and belittled because of their race last year.

At McClatchy, 89 Hispanic students make up 17.4 percent of the school’s HISP. There are only 12 black students, 2.3 percent of the program’s 509 students. In the general school population, Hispanics make up 40 percent of the student body and African Americans 14 percent.

At the International Baccalaureate program for juniors and seniors at Mira Loma, the only magnet program in the San Juan school district, there are 10 African American and 49 Hispanic students enrolled this year. The program has a total enrollment of 403, meaning African Americans and Latinos make up just 2.5 percent and 12 percent of the program’s students, respectively.

Overall, the school is 8 percent African American and 19.5 percent Latino.

‘A much easier road’

The incidents at McClatchy and Mira Loma caused angst and anger and exposed a racial divide. Some parents, students and administrators thought they represented isolated incidents not reflective of the values or efforts of the programs around diversity. Others, including many students of color, said the lack of diversity was an open secret and indicative of ongoing discrimination that schools and districts have failed to fix for years.

Most agreed the reasons for the lack of racial equity and equality in the programs are not simple. Stereotypes, a flawed entrance process, failure by school districts to communicate with families of color and socioeconomic inequities all play a part in keeping some minority students out, experts said.

“This is not something you can hang around the neck of one program at one comprehensive high school,” said Ellen Wong, the HISP coordinator at McClatchy. “This conversation has to be larger than it is right now and deeper.”

Preschool, a stay-at-home parent, stable finances and other educational and social resources often allow higher-income white and Asian children to begin kindergarten with a stronger start, said Darryl White, president of the Black Parallel School Board, which advocates for minority children in Sacramento City Unified. Those kids build confidence in their abilities and often benefit from the perception – both in their own minds and in their communities – that they are smarter than kids who lack parent involvement or good schools.

“Those kids can always carve out a much easier road to success in school,” White said.

Privileged experiences accumulate over the years. Students whose parents have social and political clout often choose high-achieving schools and courses early on, putting them on a path to compete for accelerated programs by their teen years. At the same time, their poorer counterparts often face growing social and economic challenges including violence in their communities, single-parent homes and the need for kids to help parents financially.

Beyond those big-picture problems, though, lie more manageable barriers that experts, teachers and students say could be more easily solved to create greater equity for students who could handle the high-level work.

One of those is simply information. Many parents of color don’t know about the programs early on, and so can’t channel young kids toward them. Often, white and Asian parents, especially those living in more affluent neighborhoods, learn about the program from their peers in social groups, Smith said. Historically excluded groups don’t have the advantage of hearing about the programs from parents whose kids have already gone through them.

Dana Maeshia is the mother of a 16-year-old African American student at Valley High who is taking advanced engineering classes. She considers herself an active parent, but was unaware of the accelerated International Baccalaureate program offered by the Elk Grove Unified School District at Laguna Creek High School.

“I am not one of those people who just lets life happen to my children,” she said. “I am just so surprised that this is available. ... I haven’t seen any handouts. I haven’t seen any information.”

If more black and Latino families were aware of the chance, said Maeshia, she believes they would participate. “We would push our children ... to get into these programs,” she said. “Not only do I think they should do a better job, I think they should target us.”

‘I will let them try’

Jonah Wiener-Brodkey and Amos Karlsen, two McClatchy HISP seniors, are doing a research project on why students of color aren’t applying to their program. The teens visited Fern Bacon Middle School in South Sacramento and were surprised to learn that many people didn’t know anything about it.

“For the most part, they just hadn’t heard of HISP,” Karlsen said.

Sacramento district officials said they do not specifically do outreach about the programs to African American and Hispanic families, but plan to do more in the future. Wong, the HISP coordinator at McClatchy, said the district prohibits programs like hers from visiting middle schools to target kids, instead allowing only district-sponsored events including multiple programs.

Karlsen, the McClatchy senior, said he was told programs like HISP couldn’t do site visits to avoid “selectively recruiting” certain students.

San Juan Unified, home to Mira Loma High School, doesn’t specifically target African American and Latino families either when it promotes AP and IB programs, but it has stepped up overall outreach, said Rick Messer, assistant superintendent of secondary education. The district uses a student survey, assessments, attendance and discipline data, as well as other metrics, to identify students who have the potential and interest to do well in the advanced courses and to recruit them, he said.

Elk Grove Unified reaches out to potential IB students through the media, digital and online advertisements and on the radio, said Xanthi Pinkerton, district spokeswoman. Parents in the district are offered information about the program through email, social media and on the district website, she said.

For African American and Latino kids who do know of the opportunities, many said their social and economic situations created barriers.

Where many students in elite programs have the money for computers, tutors and free time to study, students of color often say their realities are different. They may come from low-income households where their paychecks from after-school jobs help pay for basics like rent and groceries, and where academic expectations are often secondary to survival.

At Burbank, school administrators took those hurdles into account when creating their International Baccalaureate program in 2004. Burbank IB coordinator Katherine Bell said the program purposefully decided not to be a magnet and not to be exclusive, but instead attempts to draw neighborhood kids with an advanced program tailored to their needs and open to every kid at the school.

“If I have a student who wants to take an IB class and they are a straight ‘D’ student, I will let them try,” she said. “I think it’s an amazing model of how you can have an inclusive yet academically rigorous program that doesn’t put itself off as being defined as something everyone else isn’t.”

Where HISP students often use personal laptops to access Google classroom for assignments, Burbank students may use on-campus computers or cellphones. Instead of heavy homework loads due daily, Burbank IB teachers often give rolling due dates to accommodate work and family obligations, and run free Saturday help sessions when big deadlines are looming. Because kids are recruited from neighborhood middle schools – often personally by Bell – they don’t face the transportation problems that magnet programs can create.

“IB programs work for ... middle-class white kids,” said Burbank IB English instructor Phillip Taylor. “You can’t go into inner-city schools and then just run the same old curriculum, the same old educational strategies.”

‘Home on weekends’

At Burbank, there are 394 juniors and seniors taking IB classes this year. Fourteen percent are African American and 37 percent are Hispanic. Forty-one percent are Asian, the majority of those Hmong. White students make up less than one percent of the program.

But 48 percent of kids in the overall population of the school take an IB class, Bell said.

Tremaine Newton, an African American senior, will be one of 55 students graduating from Burbank this year with a full IB diploma. All of those students have applied to college, Bell said.

Newton, who has a 4.83 GPA, has been accepted to multiple California State University campuses, but he’s “praying” March brings an acceptance letter to an engineering and entrepreneurship program at University of California, Berkeley.

It has been hard, he said, to allow himself those big ambitions. Living in south Sacramento, where violence, poverty and gangs are common, has made success in the IB program a challenge. Walking to school, he encounters gang members. At night, he hears gun shots. He works at McDonald’s to help his single mother pay for his clothes and food, and relies on “YouTube and my teachers” for tutoring when classes get tough, he said.

“It’s just different for black students,” Newton said. “They want to get jobs or go inside the streets to help their mom instead of just being in school and pushing for your future. ... Just being in a black community it’s a struggle.”

International Baccalaureate (IB) high school student Tremaine Newton 17 in class at Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento on Thursday, February 8, 2018. In a high school with 22% African American students, only 12 % of black kids are in the IB program. Randall Benton

Kayla Hargrave, another senior in the Burbank program, said her personal life has also been the greatest challenge to succeeding in IB. She has a 4.6 GPA and is pinning her hopes on University of California, Los Angeles.

One of her brothers committed suicide in 2015 and her mother became depressed. The family, with nine kids, lost their home and had to move to Vacaville, but she didn’t want to give up the opportunity offered by the Burbank program. She commuted two hours each day on light rail and the bus to get to school, the $6 dollar one-way fare “burning a hole” in her father’s pocket.

Now, she’s living in Sacramento with friends.

“I only go home on weekends,” she said. “I’m getting used to it. It’s hard.”

While students of color like Newton and Hargrave are the norm at Burbank, African American and Hispanic students at other programs said they felt stigmatized by their race, leading them to question if they deserved to be in the programs and if the programs wanted them there.

A former Mira Loma IB student now at UC Berkeley, who asked to remain anonymous because he feared his employment would be affected, recalled an experience where a teacher asked them to write a paragraph in a colloquial dialect. A Pakistani classmate wrote his in “black” speech, the student said, including use of “the N-word with a hard ‘er.’ 

“He read this out to the class and everyone was laughing, and being the only black student, I cringed at what he said. And the teacher wasn’t addressing anything. He laughed with everyone else,” he said. “That make me feel unwelcome.”

“This is the sad thing about it,” said Smith, the education expert. “Only a select few black students ever have the opportunity to be in advanced coursework – only to be discriminated against when they get there. ... Black students have to work twice as hard, be twice as prepared and are seen as half as much. This is the sad reality of the education system.”

New life prospects

Smith said discrimination starts long before high school for kids of color and affects students at all income levels. Early on, they face assumptions that African American and Latino students can’t compete, keeping them from getting into vigorous classes that would have prepared them for these prestigious academic programs. Research from the National Center for Education Statistics shows that African American students who were above average in math in fifth grade were often not identified as being prepared to take algebra in eighth grade.

These biases extend to the selection process for special college-prep programs, which often require teacher and counselor recommendations. Black and Hispanic students are often overlooked by adults whose conscious or unconscious biases make them assume these students can’t make the grades, said White.

“There is the perception, the attitude, we simply aren’t capable,” White said.

Most Sacramento County IB programs do not require letters of recommendation from teachers, while other programs, including HISP, do. International Baccalaureate programs generally use a combination of test scores, student statements, state assessments and overall grades to determine who can take IB coursework in the 11th and 12th grades, when the IB Diploma program is offered.

With so many problems in accelerated programs, some wonder if they should exist at all.

White, of the Black Parallel School Board, calls IB and Advanced Placement separatist programs that drain resources from regular programs and take high-performing teachers away from other students and questions if the dollars wouldn’t be better spent on improving schools overall.

“The theory is that some kids are more intelligent than others, therefore they can be classified in different groups,” he said. “I’ve found that is not as true as it seems on paper.”

But school districts are fond of IB programs because they are usually magnet programs that draw students from throughout the region who will perform at higher levels on tests, making their schools look good, he said.

They also help lure upper- and middle-class parents – often active volunteers and donors – who might otherwise flee to private or charter schools.

While the demographics of many accelerated programs are controversial, their results are not. For the students who do complete the programs, they are clear pathways to top universities.

HISP and IB students regularly join the ranks of top University of California campuses and private schools including Stanford and Harvard. Karlsen, the HISP senior, is going to Haverford College, a well-noted liberal arts university in Pennsylvania. Wiener-Brodkey, his research partner, is hoping for positive news from Pitzer College, one of the Claremont schools in Southern California.

For black and Latino kids, the programs can represent something more profound: a complete shift in their life prospects.

Miravilla said his mother sells blankets and cleans houses to make money. His cousins are in gangs. Before joining the Burbank program, he thought he’d wind up following in their footsteps. Now, he sees a different future. His dream acceptance letter is an envelope from UC Davis.

“I don’t have to do what my cousins do, sell drugs and hit the corners and stuff. I can do something with my life,” he said. “I am excited about going to college, especially making my parents proud. Especially my family in Mexico, they didn’t really have the opportunities I’ve had, so I’m taking full advantage of it.”

Anita Chabria: 916-321-1049, @chabriaa

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